LINGUIST List 8.63

Tue Jan 21 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Peter Farruggio, revised Oakland ebonics wording
  2. Peter Daniels, Re: 8.55, Disc: Ebonics
  3. benji wald, the new Oakland resolution

Message 1: revised Oakland ebonics wording

Date: Sun, 19 Jan 1997 15:20:20 -0700
From: Peter Farruggio <>
Subject: revised Oakland ebonics wording


I just received the Oakland school district's revised resolution on ebonics
(as amended at the school board meeting of 1/15/97) I cannot type the
whole resolution, but one part that is of most significance to linguists is
the question of "language or dialect?", and that is covered in the opening
two paragraphs. The first paragraph remains unchanged:

> Whereas, numerous validated scholarly studies demonstrate that
>African American students as part of their culture and history as African
>people possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly
>approaches as ``Ebonics'' (literally Black sounds) or Pan African
>Communication Behaviors or African Language Systems; and

The second paragraph contained the infamous "genetically based"
formulation, and that has been deleted. Here is the original:

> Whereas, these studies have also demonstrated that African
>Language Systems are genetically-based and not a dialect of English; and

Here is the revised version:

 "Whereas, these studies have also demonstrated that African
Language Systems (bold print begins) have origins in West and Niger-Congo
languages (bold print ends) and (bold print begins) are (bold ends) not
(bold begins) merely (bold ends) dialects of English; and..."

(Sorry about the parentheticals, but my software does not allow for bold or
italics. The bold print is in the printed version handed out in all
schools last Friday for distribution to teachers)

The position seems a bit waffly to me..." not merely dialects of English"
suggests to me that it is a dialect (or dialects) of English, but with
African influences...but a literal reading would mean that it's a dialect
and then some, I guess.

This particular revision was not done by the two newly elected school board
members (they proposed other changes), but by the "African American Task
Force" that had drafted the original resolution. They met in a closed door
meeting for ten hours the Saturday before the Wed. school board meeting,
and made several revisions to the original controversial text.

Pete Farruggio
Oakland, CA
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 8.55, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 1997 07:43:38 -0600
From: Peter Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 8.55, Disc: Ebonics

At the very moment while I am downloading Sunday's group of Ebonics LINGUIST
issues, NPR's Morning Edition is broadcasting an excellent story by Brooke
Gladstone on the poor representation by journalists of the Oakland Ebonics
issue. If it is possible, I urge LINGUIST List to post a transcript of her
report; if not, I urge all linguists to request a transcript from NPR (the
only contact I immediately know is
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: the new Oakland resolution

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 1997 03:27:27 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: the new Oakland resolution

I'd be delighted if I was wrong and it's not quite over. The term,
"Ebonics", now enshrined, perhaps harmlessly, in the LSA resolution, is
bowing out without affecting anybody's opinion one way or another about the
vernacular spoken by most African Americans. As a testament to the power
of words, the more dignified label "African Language Systems" (sounds like
a corporation) features in the most significant revisions of the Oakland
resolution. Now if the media start screaming that the Oakland school board
didn't recant enough, and just changed a word, don't blame me. They could
decide to say that on their own, even if it isn't true. And it isn't true.
We have reached a second stage of negotiations, and the issues are
becoming more specific.

The key passages in the revision are:

WHEREAS, the standardized tests and grade scores of African-American
students in reading and language arts skills measuring their application of
English skills are substantially below state and national norms and that
such deficiencies shall be remedied by application of a program featuring
African Language Systems principles to move students from the language
patterns they bring to school to English proficiency; and

WHEREAS, standardized tests and grade scores will be remedied by
application of a program that teachers and instructional assistants, who
are certified in the methodology of African Language Systems principles
used to transition students from the language patterns they bring to school
to English. The certified teachers of these students will be provided
incentives including, but not limited to salary differentials;

The key concept in the reformulation is "African Language Systems
(principles)", certainly more "respectable" sounding the "Ebonics". I
don't know what is meant by this, but it seems to mean an actual program
that can be touched and examined, might have a commercial maufacturer
and/or copyright holder (no doubt!), and has a documented rationale and
maybe some experimental data claiming effectiveness. I expect the static
to continue, because the resolution will continue to have national
implications, and will be picked up elsewhere. I look forward to further
discussion of the program, as proposed, because it will be of linguistic
and educational interest as a proposal, and will be judged by criteria that
are applied to other educational proposals. (Application of criteria, also
negotiable, can be done in various ways, fairly or unfairly, but let's take
one step at a time.)

Without wishing to make trouble, myself, I expect that the passage "used to
transition students from the language patterns they bring to school to
*English*" will still be objected to, and will provoke scepticism on the
part of many about the assumptions underlying African Language Systems.
Beyond that, it might actually offend some African Americans, for example
those familiar with non-English-speaking people, to be told, AS USUAL, that
they (or their children) don't speak "English". But we linguists know that
language labels are political and ideological so we can help with further
revisions of this passage if necessary.

With some knowledge on my own part, I agree that African American
vernacular speakers do indeed use some, some even profound features (in my
view), that it shares historically with many, even most, West African
languages, even beyond Niger-Congo, and even beyond West Africa. However,
I will be interested in what the program identifies as such, and how they
make a case that this needs to be taken into account, other than in not
being denigrated, in teaching speakers who have this speech tradition how
to manipulate another tradition that goes by the name of "standard

In addition, I will be interested in how linguistic features of African
American vernaculars will also be taken into account that are a testament
to the continued creativity of speakers of African American vernaculars,
but are NOT historically related African traditions OR taken from speech
traditions in neighboring non-African American communities in the US.
Among such innovations, for which West African languages give little (but
not absolutely no) direct support is the currently, but -- significantly!
- not formerly, much discussed aspectual marker sometimes called
"invariant be" as in "whenever I watch the news, they be talking about

Now, we could get into interesting linguistic discussions, or even heated
arguments, about the origin of "invariant be", a topic which was
discussed and argued in various ways among linguists BEFORE it became one
of the current stereotypes of the vernacular that "everybody" now knows
about. But I do not see how its origin could make any difference to a
program to teach standard English to speakers who use it. So, such an
argument seems pointless to me in this context (cf. Chuck Fillmore
suggested that the origin of ... is irrelevant to the educational
situation, but I'm making a more specific assertion.) Instead, to
continue with this example, I would expect the student to come to realise
that in this case standard English has a less complex aspectual system than
the vernacular, with fewer aspectual distinctions, and that in using the
standard language the speaker will have to either say something less
precise, because speakers/readers of the standard won't notice the loss of
precision, or find another way maintain the precision (certain adverbs is
one way in some contexts).

(Now, to digress only slightly, education, such as it is and intends to be,
will also attempt to give the speaker various points of view that reflect
the "standard" culture and "standard" things to talk about, at least in
school, so the whole enterprise, which reflects education in traditional
rhetoric -- not the pejorative meaning that "rhetoric" has in colloquial
speech, but pretty much in the way Aristotle used the term, in Greek of
course -- is a more complex process of cultural standardisation where
features of language and poses struck are indissolubly mixed. An
"effective" program will have to take into account this -- effect. But
let's keep this consideration off screen for the moment, under the
questionable assumption that such a consideration is less grave for the
early grades -- where an interest in reading is to be diligently
cultivated?. Getting back to "invariant be" I allowed myself the above
digression, because the loss of aspectual precision in suppressing it is
not particularly important to whatever precise idea is being formulated,
but rather to the points of view speakers who use it expect from each
other, because of the social context in which they learned it These are
not the points of view that the classroom is interested in teaching -- or
needs to teach, and it probably couldn't even teach them if it wanted to.)

In view of the fact that "invariant be" is hardly likely to be excluded
from consideration in a program designed to get speakers to recognise
standard English, and under the assumption that its origin is unimportant
toward this purpose (how could it be important to this purpose?), I do not
take the term African Language Systems literally, and hear it as a
condensation of African American Language Systems. That does not alter
the fact that its content and other types of validity must be carefully
examined before a financial commitment is made that might be a waste of
money which could have been spent better for the same purposes in some
other way.

Finally, I agree that there has been a lot of negative mis and
disinformation about Africa and African languages in the African American
community as well as among other Americans, and that if many of the facts
about African languages were known, many African American students would be
pleasantly surprised and, even from personal experience I can say, very
interested. I would therefore also like to see in what way the proposed
program intends to utilise available information about Africa and African
languages to reverse the still commonly held negative myths about Africa
and the students' African heritage, both in language and other forms of
culture. By the way, I do not see that non-African American students are
in any less need of such information than African American students, as far
as recognition, respect and general knowledge of human creativity is
concerned. So what's African (American) Language Systems? It's time to
talk, and time to learn. -- Benji
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue