LINGUIST List 8.49

Sat Jan 18 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Charles J. FILLMORE, contributed posting (longish)

Message 1: contributed posting (longish)

Date: Thu, 2 Jan 1997 14:28:29 -0800 (PST)
From: Charles J. FILLMORE <fillmorecogsci.Berkeley.EDU>
Subject: contributed posting (longish)

A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate
Charles J. Fillmore
Department of Linguistics, U. C. Berkeley
	One uncontroversial principle underlying the Oakland 
Unified School District's December 18th "Ebonics" resolution 
is the truism that people can't learn from each other if they 
don't speak the same language. Anyone who doubts this has 
only to read the current public debate about the resolution 
itself. Educators, bureaucrats, and experts have been 
weighing in on the meaning of the resolution in the last two 
weeks. You might think all that these people speak the same 
language, but the evidence contradicts the appearance. All 
of the key words that keep coming up in these discussions 
clearly mean different things to different parties in the debate, 
and that blocks successful communication and makes it too 
easy for each participant to believe that the others are mad, 
scheming, or stupid.
* * *
	As far as I can work it out (not from the language of the 
resolution but from the board's recent "clarifications"), the 
pedagogically relevant assumptions behind the "Ebonics" 
resolution are as follows: The way some African American 
children speak when they show up in Oakland's schools is so 
different from standard English that teachers often can't 
understand what they are saying. Such children perform 
poorly in school and typically fail to acquire the ways of 
speaking that they'll need in order to succeed in the world 
outside their neighborhoods. Schools have traditionally 
treated the speech of these children as simply sloppy and 
wrong, not as evidencing skills and knowledge the children 
can build on. The proposed new instructional plan would 
assist children in learning standard English by encouraging 
them to compare the way they speak with what they need to 
learn in school, and this cannot be accomplished in a calm 
and reasoned way unless their teachers treat what they 
already have, linguistically, as a worthy possession rather 
than as evidence of carelessness and ignorance. An 
important step toward introducing this new practice is to 
help teachers understand the characteristics of their students' 
speech so they can lead the children to an awareness of the 
* * *
	If would have been more natural for me to describe the 
plan with such words as "building on the language the 
children already have to help them acquire the language they 
need to learn in school." But instead, I avoided using the 
word "language", since that is one of the words responsible 
for much of the confusion in the discussion around the school 
board's decision. The other words causing trouble are 
"dialect", "slang", "primary language", and, regrettably, 
"genetic". Neither side in these debates uses these words in 
ways that facilitate communication. Perhaps a linguist's view 
might introduce some clarity into these discussions.
	The words "dialect" and "language" are confusingly 
ambiguous. These are not precisely definable technical terms 
in linguistics, but linguists have learned to live with the 
ambiguities. I mentioned "the language of the resolution" 
where I meant the actual words and phrases found in the text 
of the board's resolution. We can use the word "language" to 
refer simply to the linguistic system one acquires in 
childhood. In normal contexts, everybody grows up 
speaking a language. And if there are systematic differences 
between the language you and your neighbors speak and 
the language my neighbors and I speak, we can say that we 
speak different dialects. 
	The word "language" is also used to refer to a group of 
related dialects, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding 
when to refer to two linguistic systems as different dialects of 
the same language, or as different languages belonging to the 
same language family. There are empirical criteria for 
grouping ways of speaking to reflect their historical 
relationships, but there is an arbitrary element in deciding 
when to use the word "language" for representing any 
particular grouping. (Deciding whether BBC newsreaders 
and Lynchburg, Va., radio evangelists speak different 
dialects of the same language or different languages in the 
same language family is on the level of deciding whether 
Greenland is a small continent or a large island.)
	There is a different and misleading way of using these 
words for situations in which, for social or political reasons, 
one dialect comes to be the preferred means of 
communication in schools, commerce, public ceremonies, etc. 
According to this second usage, which reflects an unscientific 
"folk theory", what the linguist would simply call the 
standard dialect is thought of as a "language", the others as 
"mere dialects", falling short of the perfection of the real 
language. An important principle of linguistics is that the 
selection of the prestige dialect is determined by accidental 
extralinguistic forces, and is not dependent on inherent 
virtues of the dialects themselves. But according to the folk 
theory, the "dialects" differ from the language itself in being 
full of errors.
	I've been reading the San Francisco newspapers these 
last two weeks, and I see continuing chaos in the ways 
commentators choose to describe and classify the manner of 
speaking that is the target of the Ebonics resolution. The 
resolution and the public discussion about it have used so 
many different terms, each of them politically loaded 
("Ebonics", "Black English", "Black Dialect", "African 
Language Systems", "Pan-African Communication 
Behaviors") that I will use what I think is the most neutral 
term, "African American Vernacular English", abbreviated as 
(1) Some participants in this debate think that AAVE is 
merely an imperfectly learned approximation to real English, 
differing from it because the speakers are careless and lazy 
and don't follow "the rules". It is "dialect", in the deprecating 
use of that word, or "slang".
 (2) To most linguists AAVE is one of the dialects of American 
English, historically most closely related to forms of Southern 
speech but with differences attributable both to the linguistic 
history of slaves and to generations of social isolation. (For a 
linguist, to describe something as a dialect is not to say that it 
is inferior; everybody speaks a dialect.)
(3) And some people say that while AAVE has the superficial 
trappings of English, at its structural core it is a continuation 
or amalgam of one or more west African languages.
	The views summarized in (1) are simply wrong. The 
difference between the views identified in (2) and (3) is 
irrelevant to the issue the board is trying to face.
* * *
	The Oakland resolution asks that the schools 
acknowledge that AAVE is the "primary language" of many 
of the children who enter Oakland schools. What this means 
is that it is their home language, the form of speech the 
children operated in during the first four or five years of their 
lives, the language they use with their family and friends. An 
early explanation of the purpose of the new program 
(Chronicle 12/20) is that it "is intended to help teachers show 
children how to translate their words from 'home language' to 
the 'language of wider communication'."
	Understanding this as the meaning of the phrase, it 
makes sense to ask if something is or is not some particular 
person's "primary language", but the simple question of 
whether something is or isn't "a primary language" is 
incoherent. The people who have expressed such concerns 
clearly think the term means something other than what I 
think the school board intended.
	The Chronicle (12/20) asked readers to send in their 
opinions "on the Oakland school board's decision to 
recognize ebonics, or black English, as a primary language". 
The Examiner (12/20) attributed to Delaine Eastin, state 
Superintendent of Public Instruction, the worry that the 
decision to "recognize" AAVE could lead students to believe 
"that they could prosper with it as their primary language 
outside the home." An Examiner writer editorialized (12/20) 
that "[i]n the real world of colleges and commerce and 
communication, it's not OK to speak Ebonics as a primary 
language. Job recruiters don't bring along a translator." The 
Chronicle (12/24) accounts for Oakland's sudden fame as 
happening "all because the school board voted to treat black 
English like any other primary language spoken by 
	These commentators were clearly not worried about 
whether there really are people who have AAVE as their 
primary language. They all seem to understand the term 
"primary language" in some different way. Perhaps the term 
"home language" wouldn't have created so much 
* * *
	The critics have also worried about whether AAVE "is a 
language". One way of understanding the question is 
whether it is a language rather than a mere collection of 
"mistakes". This seems to be the way Ward Connerly 
understands the question, and his answer is that it isn't a 
language. Another is whether it has the full status of a 
language rather than a dialect, in the folk use of these words 
mentioned above. This seems to be the view attributed to 
James Baldwin, in a 1979 article quoted by Pamela Budman, 
Chronicle 12/26. Baldwin thought it "patronizing" to speak 
of AAVE as a dialect rather than as a full-fledged language.
	But on the question of whether there is a definable 
linguistic system, spoken by many African Americans, with 
its own phonology, lexicon and grammar (and dialects!), 
there is already a huge body of research. (For an useful 
bibliography see the web site The 
question of whether twenty-seven thousand African 
American children in Oakland schools come from families that 
speak that language has to be an empirical question, not an 
issue for tapping people's opinions.
	The Chronicle (12/20) reports the nation's shock at the 
news of the resolution by "the Oakland school district's 
decision to recognize the African American vernacular as a 
language." Under the headline "Ebonics Isn't a Language" in 
the Examiner (12/25), Education Secretary Riley is reported 
as warning about the dangers of "[e]levating black English to 
the status of a language".
	When the Examiner issued its invitation for readers' 
opinions (12/23) the phrasing was: "Will recognition of black 
English as a language help African-American students 
succeed?" Some readers might have understood "recognition 
... as a language" as involving whether there is such a 
language at all, others as whether it is a language separate 
from English in the way that French and Hausa are, and still 
others as whether Oakland was proposing that AAVE join 
standard English as one of the languages to be used in the 
city's classrooms. It is amazing to me that the issue was 
thought of as deserving treatment as a yes-or-no question. It 
is even more amazing that so many readers felt they were 
qualified to answer the question.
* * *
	One of the claims contained in the resolution is that 
Ebonics is not a linguistic cousin of English, but is really more 
directly descended from West African linguistic stock. 
(Though one Oakland teacher was heard on national TV as 
saying that Ebonics is basically Swahili.) Raising this issue 
has really muddied the pedagogical problem the schools are 
facing. Instead of focusing on the cognitive consequences in 
American schools of students' having AAVE as their primary 
language, whatever its source or status, the board chose to 
confuse the world with an irrelevant claim about language 
	A Chronicle editorial (12/20) after surveying what it 
described as AAVE features, stated that "Such variations 
amount to a dialect of English -- not a separate language." 
My Berkeley colleague, John McWhorter, was quoted 
(Chronicle 12/21) as saying "Black English is a dialect -- it is 
not a separate language". Here I am sure that he meant that 
it is a dialect of English.
	The Examiner (12/24) referred to the School District's 
attempts to explain "its decision to adopt black English as a 
separate language" but the next day (12/25) quoted board 
member Jean Quan as saying "We never said it was a 
separate language." 
	What turns on the answer to this question? One 
possibility is that if AAVE can be recognized as something 
other than a variety of English, that fact should allow the 
school district to qualify for funds earmarked for bilingual 
education. Whether or not this was the intention of the 
board, it is certainly true that many people assumed that it 
was. An early report in the Chronicle (12/20) stated quite 
straighforwardly that "[t]he educators hope to win federal 
bilingual dollars to help pay for the program." On the next 
day the Chronicle added: "Education officials in some 
districts, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, say they 
are intrigued with what Oakland did and might do the same -
- primarily to seek federal bilingual education funds." San 
Francisco school board member Dan Kelly too "would 
support a move to have the federal government recognize 
ebonics as a separate language for purposes of funding 
bilingual education." Whatever the intentions of the board 
might have been, observers across the nation read a local 
policy decision urging the recognition of AAVE as the home 
language of many students as a step in justifying a request 
for federal funding. (A Chicago Tribune editorial, quoted in 
the Chronicle 12/28, assumed that giving AAVE "the status 
of a language" would entail "qualify[ing] the children who 
speak it to receive federally funded bilingual education.")
	The intentions regarding funding are somewhat unclear, 
but the resolution did suggest that they intended to use 
AAVE as a language of instruction. Explaining things to 
children in a language they understand is one thing; teaching 
that language to the children is something else, and this is the 
possibility that raised some alarms. 
	The resolution declares that "the Superintendent in 
conjunction with her staff shall devise and implement the best 
possible academic program for imparting instruction to 
African American students in their primary language for the 
combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and 
richness of such language ... and to facilitate their acquisition 
and mastery of English language skills." Here the source of 
ambiguity is the word "maintaining": it could refer to 
defending the belief that the language is legitimate and rich, 
or it could refer to preserving the language from decline. The 
second (and I would suspect unintended) interpretation is 
the one that led some people to think that the district 
intended to offer classes in AAVE. (A belief that this is what 
they meant led Jesse Jackson to say that children would be 
better off studying Spanish.)
	To resolve these various misunderstandings, the board 
has hired the PR firm of Darolyn Davis, whose job, according 
to the Chronicle (12/24) is "to help them explain that they 
have no intention of teaching children to speak black English 
- ebonics -- or applying for federal bilingual dollars to their 
program under false pretenses." This has been done in the 
form of a statement of "legislative intent".
* * *
	The questions until now have been: "is it a primary 
language?"; "is it a language?"; and "is it a separate 
language?" The next word to worry about is whether AAVE 
is simply "slang". This term is usually used to refer to 
ephemeral faddish locutions usually associated with schools, 
sports, music and entertainment, and gang life, existing 
mainly for expressing group solidarity, especially among the 
young and hip. But it has been one of the favorite dismissing 
words of the critics of the school board's actions. Jesse 
Jackson is quoted in the Examiner (12/22) as saying, "in 
Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a 
second language." To which he added, "You don't have to 
go to school to learn to talk garbage."
	The Chronicle reported (12/21) that "[s]ome scholars 
call it slang, criticizing Oakland for legitimizing error-ridden 
speech." ("Some scholars"? What are these people scholars 
of, if they can decide that something is slang?) We learn that 
in addition to the Rev. Jackson, Ward Connerly calls it slang, 
and complains that the board's action will "legitimize" it. 
Shelby Steele (Chronicle 12/20) calls black English "merely 
slang". Listeners to talk shows (Chronicle 12/21) learn "that 
Oakland is giving up on conventional English and diverting 
black kids into classes taught in slang." A Debra Saunders 
piece (Chronicle 12/24) writes that black parents "may not 
welcome a philosophy that elevates slang." All of these 
quotations suggest that their authors do not believe that 
there exists anything deserving to be treated as an actual 
linguistic system in the speech of the students in question. 
The most stunning such judgment comes from Ward 
Connerly (Chronicle 12/21): "These are kids that have had 
every opportunity to acclimate themselves to American 
society, and they have gotten themselves into this trap of 
speaking this language -- this slang, really -- that people can't 
understand. Now we're going to legitimize it." Mr. Connerly 
seems not to believe that the children in question have 
acquired a way of speaking through the normal process of 
language acquisition.
* * *
	The most controversial paragraph of the resolution 
introduced the word "genetics" into the debate. It is really 
difficult to know what the writers of the phrase had in mind. 
In the language of the resolution, "numerous validated 
studies" have demonstrated "that African Language Systems 
are genetically based and not a dialect of English." 
	This passage was interpreted by many as claiming that 
Black English is biologically innate in its speakers. Now there 
is a metaphorical linguistic concept of "genetic" relationships, 
as when we say that Spanish and Italian are genetically 
related to Latin, but neither the language of the resolution 
nor the board's later clarifications have brought their usage 
any closer to the linguistic notion.
	The board has since explained (Chronicle 12/25) that 
they were not claiming "that black people have a unique 
biology" but merely (Examiner 12/22) that AAVE has a 
"historical and cultural basis". A clarification appearing on 
the OUSD's web page states that "[t]he term 'genetically 
based' is a synonym with genesis ... used according to the 
standard dictionary definition of 'has its origins in.' It is not 
used to refer to human biology." There is no easy way to 
substitute either "genesis" or "has its origins in" into the 
phrasing of the resolution and come up with something 
coherent. In the first place, something is missing: what would 
follow the "in" of "has its origins in"?
	The efforts to explain the bit about genetics have not 
been effective. As late as December 31, we read Clyde 
Haberman in the New York Times challenging the board to 
explain the graceful English of the Ghanaian Kofi Annan, the 
new United Nations Secretary General. The implication is 
that Kofi Annan's genes clearly didn't destine him to be a 
speaker of AAVE.
* * *
	There is a common-sense core to the Oakland school 
board's plans. All over the world children show up in school 
speaking a variety of language that differs in some great or 
small way from the variety they're about to start learning. 
Where the discrepancy is slight, and where (as in most parts 
of the world) nobody would think of telling the children to 
give up their home language, the difference can be easily 
bridged. But in all cases it is natural for teachers to do 
whatever they can to make students aware of the differences. 
	The case made by the board is that this bridging from 
the home language to the school language should be done in 
a way that isn't demeaning to the children. Such elementary 
concern for the children's self-esteem has been ridiculed by 
some as a meaningless gesture of "political correctness", and 
a belief that children should never be corrected. But clearly, 
a child who can say freely, "In my dialect we say it like this" is 
better able to profit from a language-learning experience than 
a child who is simply always told that everything he says is 
"wrong". (And is anybody thinking about the parents of 
AAVE-speaking children who have been listening to all this 
talk about "garbage" and "nonsense"?)
* * *
	The language used by the Oakland school board in 
formulating the resolution has occasioned great and 
continuing misunderstandings, leading to worries about 
whether the city of Oakland's reputation has been so 
seriously damaged that employers will stay away. Yet board 
members, insisting that they will never modify the language 
of the resolution, have instead hired a PR firm to help them 
justify the language they already have. 
	I think the board should practice what they preach and 
should do what they say they want their students to do: 
learn the language of the larger community so that they can 
achieve their goals in that community. Why not start over 
with the language of the resolution? And maybe in the work 
of changing the way they communicate what they originally 
wanted to say, they might even consider making some 
changes in what it was that they originally wanted to say. 
	In the board's public statements they should show a 
clearer understanding of what they are getting into. The 
changes needed will not be trivial, and will have to include 
the daunting job of sensitizing teachers to a language many 
of them have wanted to believe does not exist. Much of the 
public debate suggests that the new classroom practice will 
be mostly a matter of displaying respect for the children's 
home language, and making students aware of the 
pronunciation of "with" as "wif", the uses of "be", and 
multiple negation. But anybody who has looked at the 
linguistic structure of the African American vernacular knows 
that there's a lot more to it than that.
	The OUSD school board has made an important 
proposal: that the work of helping speakers of black English 
to learn the language of the school will be easier and more 
effective if it is seen as building on a home language whose 
properties the children are encouraged to examine, rather 
than as an endless process of "correcting mistakes". If that's 
all the new policy achieves, it will have been worth it. If 
teachers can attain precise understandings of the nature of 
that language, that will be even better. If all of this discussion 
encourages everyone involved to make whatever other 
changes need to be made to improve the school performance 
of African American students in the district, Oakland will 
achieve a new and more welcome kind of fame.
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