LINGUIST List 8.47

Sat Jan 18 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Dennis Baron, Oakland's Ebonics
  2. benji wald, Ebonics

Message 1: Oakland's Ebonics

Date: Tue, 24 Dec 1996 20:04:24 -0500
From: Dennis Baron <>
Subject: Oakland's Ebonics

NOTE FROM THE MODERATORS: Many of the messages on _ebonics_
were sent in during the LINGUIST vacation. Because of the
great backlog, we are only now able to post them.

FYI. Comments and suggestions on the appended essay are welcome.


Dennis Baron
Department of English
	fax: 217-333-4321
University of Illinois
608 South Wright Street
Urbana, IL 61801

 Oakland's Ebonics

 by Dennis Baron

In November, 1986 California began a new wave of language legislation
when it passed a voter referendum making English the official language
of the state. Ten years later, the Oakland, California, School Board
reversed the English-only trend and drew national attention by
declaring Ebonics, or Black English, the speech of many African
Americans, to be a language in its own right, not a dialect of
English. The School Board justified this by citing research into the
West African origins of some aspects of Black speech.
 	Someone once said that a language is a dialect with an army
and a navy. The schoolchildren of Oakland, California, who are
predominantly African American, do not have the kind of might that
brings with it linguistic prestige. The School Board tried to do
something to change the negative image of Black language by calling it
Ebonics and asking teachers to learn something about the speech of
their students.
	 But the American public reacted to the School Board's
declaration of linguistic independence as it would to any act of
secession. Black leaders and intellectuals condemned the Board's
action. They denounced Black speech as slangy and non-standard,
unworthy of the classroom, despite the fact that many of Oakland's
students were bringing it to school.
	Commentators white and black condemned the separatism that
would result from any recognition of Black English. They warned that
Oakland's Ebonics would give schoolchildren a misplaced sense of
pride. Their continued use of Black English would surely exclude them
from higher education and the corporate boardrooms of the nation.
	 Cynics saw the move as yet another gaffe of political
correctness, an overzealous Afro-centric reflex, or a disingenuous
ploy for Oakland to get its hands on more bilingual education dollars,
though the federal government ruled years ago that speakers of Black
English did not qualify as bilingual for funding purposes.
 	But a quiet minority wondered whether Oakland was simply
trying to question why a preponderance of African American
schoolchildren wind up in remedial and not gifted programs. Suddenly
thrust into the national spotlight, Oakland school board members too
have been trying to figure out just what they did mean by their vote.
They didn't want to teach Ebonics, they wanted to teach about Ebonics.
They wanted their students to learn standard English. Perhaps
approaching it as a foreign language might help where other methods
have failed. And one or two people have asked, just what is a
language anyway, and why do people get so upset about language that
they feel compelled to vote it in or out?
 	We can say that two people use the same language if they can
understand one another's speech. If they can't understand one
another, they are speaking separate languages. But we define
languages politically and culturally, as well as by degree of
comprehension. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible,
yet both are Chinese. They are held together on the mainland by an
army and a navy and a common writing system, and they are held
together internationally by a cultural definition of what it means to
be Chinese. Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible, though
they use different alphabets, but because of their armies they now
live apart as separate languages. Noah Webster once argued that
American and British English were separate languages.
 	Language both shapes and reflects reality. A few years ago
the sociolinguist William Labov warned that despite the unifying
forces of mass communication and public education, the speech of
American Blacks and whites was diverging, a sign that the social
distance between the two groups was increasing rather than decreasing.
The Oakland School Board's action draws our attention to this
uncomfortable fact.
 	The linguistic differences that exist in the United States are
symptoms of separateness, not its causes. If Oakland is prepared to
characterize its students as strangers in a strange land, in need of
training in English as a Second Language, it is doing so out of a fear
that we really are drifting farther apart.
	 Making English official, as California and twenty-five
other states have done, will not ensure that everybody speaks English.
I doubt that elevating Ebonics to the status of a language, and
employing ESL methods will get Oakland's students to use standard
English or score higher on standardized tests. But even if minority
students use the majority dialect, they may find that it takes a lot
more than speaking standard English to get accepted into the
mainstream. Sometimes it takes an army and a navy. Or the Supreme
Court. Or the Civil Rights Act. Or perhaps a school board waking us
up to a long-neglected problem. 

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dennis Baron
Department of English office: 217-333-2392
University of Illinois fax: 217-333-4321
608 S. Wright Street home: 217-384-1683
Urbana, IL 61801
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Message 2: Ebonics

Date: Sat, 28 Dec 1996 18:19:45 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Ebonics

LA Times: Saturday, December 28, 1996. Page B7. "Youth Opinion".
Headline: "Ebonics vs. English: 'Nobody goes to a wedding dressed in
sweats'. Introductory blurb before presenting the (?edited) opinions of
various LA high-school students (4 black and one Hispanic):

"African American high school students from the Los Angeles area, asked
about the declaration by the Oakland school board that black [sic]
English, also known as "Ebonics", is a separate and distinct language, said
they understood the impulse behind the decision but were skeptical that it
would help the learning process. In conversations with MARY REESE BOYKIN,
most of the students said that they already gauge how they speak by whom
they're speaking with, and some felt that using Ebonics as a language of
instruction might harm students' efforts to deal with the larger world in
standard English."

(Hmm, wouldn't Churchill insist on "they already gauge how they speak by
with whom they're speaking"?)

Then follow the opinions with photographs of the students, except for one
named Eimon Ra'oof who I assumed was black by what he said (and that he was
interviewed/chosen for quote). Anyway, everyone agreed with the
introductory premise -- and note! nobody used the word "appropriate"
(sociolinguistic terminology of the 70s) in expressing their opinion that
different styles/registers/ languages or what-ever-you-wanna-call-it have
different spheres of operation. That is, they did not get their opinions
directly from linguists (who never fail to use the word "appropriate" for
socio-contextually determined variation in pieces of language).

Regarding Peter Farruggio's posting. Who could disagree? However,
couldn't the same argument be used for Bilingual Education, e.g., Spanish?
That is, it's only "part" of the problem, an inferior/inadequate education
involving much more. So the issue is something like "will it help at
all?", or, "how else to get additional moneys?" (moneys for what?)

Getting back to the news article: really? the students realised it was
about getting additional funds for the schools, funds that can be used with
some flexibility. Maybe so, but there was no mention or hint of anything
to do with "money" (the bottom line of all current political argument, and
hence something to always look for in such discussions, and wonder about if
it isn't there). The theme was strictly "appropriateness", without using
the word.

Ongoing discussion will reveal more facts than I know at present, but I
gave a cut-eye (paleo-Ebonics for "askance") look at the idea embedded in
the lead-in that "using Ebonics as the language of instruction" was a
policy aim of the Oakland school board. That, of course, makes it sound
like "Bilingual Education", in fact, a hysteria-inducing stereotype of it,
since it says "THE language", not "ONE of the languages". Anyhow, how can
"Ebonics" be even A language of instruction in a classroom context, since
it does not have a classroom register? (By the way, in reference to what I
asked above about Spanish, Spanish DOES have a classroom register, it's
"just" quite different from the register used and in many cases even well
understood by most young children who speak Spanish in the US -- or
anywhere else, or should I call it Hisponics, or Sepionics? But, I admit,
it does have more points of similarity with classroom Spanish than with any
kind of English. So, yeah, I could answer the question I asked about
Bilingual Ed above, but that's not the issue here -- I hope.)

So, to start all over: what is the point of the Oakland school board
decision? -- as opposed to the purposes for which the media will use it
(obviously negatively, though with the "sensitivity" of knowing "the
impulse behind it", which is what? pride? That's not what I suggested
above, or what Peter's reaction is getting at.)

I'll wait for further discussion, so that I can learn more, then we'll
discuss the difference between Fang and Mbete (Cameroonian languages -- or
are they the same language, spoken by different communities too stubborn to
acknowledge that they speak the "same language" -- uh, different tonal
rules?), and Sranan, the spoken AND written language of Surinam which is
incomprehensible and even unrecognisable as "English" (not to mention
various Jamaican patois-es), and how that inspired recognition as a
language including a dignity which had clearly stated political
implications, and finally sterotypes of Black English (some even more
unattractive than the label "Ebonics", I believe the neologistic invention
of the black Californian linguist Ernie Banks) including the archaic stage
dialects, which were, of course, written (and little else), and then we'll
recycle our discussion about language/dialect/written language, etc. I'm
looking forward to this.

PS For those not satisfied with my comments so far, consider the
proposition that standard English (for want of a better term) is the
variety of Black English currently used in classroom instructional contexts
- and for many, also in many other contexts, e.g., church sermons,
depending on what church you go to. And, did you ever notice?, many
church-goers, not just in black churches, comment not on what the
pastor/priest/rabbi says, but on how "beautifully" he (she?) speaks.
- Benji
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