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Review of  Ebonics

Reviewer: Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu
Book Title: Ebonics
Book Author: David Ramirez Terrence G. Wiley Gerda de Klerk Enid Lee Wayne E. Wright
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.1928

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Date: Wed, 22 Jun 2005 09:50:22 -0400
From: Nkonko Kamwangamalu
Subject: Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate, 2nd ed.

EDITORS: Ramirez, J. David; Wiley, Terence G.; de Klerk, Gerda; Lee, Enid;
and Wright, Wayne E.
TITLE: Ebonics
SUBTITLE: The Urban Education Debate (2nd edition)
SERIES: New Perspectives on Language & Education
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu, Department of English, Howard University


First published in 2000, Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate is an edited
collection of 6 papers and 6 sets of documents aimed at providing a
scholarly response to the controversy that erupted in 1996 in Oakland,
California over the status and role of Ebonics in the education of African
American (AA) students. The contributors to this volume view Ebonics as a
non-standard variety of the English language (but see an opposite view in
Kifano and Smith's paper, pp. 62-95). They argue that schools need to
become more aware of language diversity and variation and use Ebonics as a
bridge in helping AA students learn Standard English to improve their
academic performance in general, and in reading and language arts in


In its effort to address the language needs of AA students, in 1996 the
Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Board adopted a resolution
recognizing the existence of Ebonics, that is, the " [home]language
patterns that AA students bring to school" (p. 129). The aim of the
resolution was, inter alia, "to move or transition students from the
language patterns they bring to school to English proficiency [..] while
respecting and embracing the legitimacy and richness of their home variety
[or Ebonics]" (p. 129). The resolution sparked the second controversy (the
first one being the 1979 court case opposing Martin Luther King Junior
School against Ann Arbor School District Board in Detroit, Michigan) and
the ensuing debate over the status and role of Ebonics, also known as
African American English, African American Vernacular English, Black
dialect, Black English, or African American Language, in the education of
AA students. For some, among them politicians and community leaders, the
resolution was a step backward for it legitimized non-standard English;
while for others, the majority of them linguists, it was a welcome
development because it not only recognized language diversity as a major
area of concern in promoting educational access and equity, but it also
sought to ensure that AA students learn Standard English, the expected
norm and one that would empower them to compete more effectively for
resources in the mainstream American society.


The book is divided into two parts preceded by an introduction in which
the editors provide the background to the book, and deplore the negative
attitude that educators and policy-makers hold towards Ebonics. Part I
consists of 6 papers one each by Terrence Wiley, John Rickford, John
Baugh, Geneva Smitherman, Subira Kifano and Ernie Smith, and Carolyne
Temple Adger. Part II consists of 6 sets of documents providing the
background to the policy debate about Ebonics and its role in the
education of AA students. These sets of documents include (i) The Original
Unified School District's Resolution (on Ebonics) and related
clarifications, (ii) Examples of Legislative Reaction to the Resolution,
(iii) Legal Background, (iv) Linguists' Reactions, (v) Organizational
Responses, and (vi) Recommended Readings on Ebonics.

Part I of the book begins with the chapter "Ebonics: Background to the
policy debate" (pp. 3-17) by Terrence Wiley. In the chapter Wiley
discusses the notion of 'standard English' (or school English) and the
language policy proposals with which it has been associated in the US
educational contexts. Wiley observes that these proposals have, in the
main, been restrictive and designed to not acknowledge the legitimacy of
Ebonics and other varieties of English spoken by minority children (pp.12-
13). He calls on educators and policy-makers to acknowledge 'that there
are systematic linguistic differences between Ebonics and school English'
(p. 13). It is counterproductive to ignore these differences or to 'erase'
Ebonics in attempts to teach AA students the standard. This is because
students learn by building on their prior linguistic and cultural

In the next chapter, "Using the Vernacular to teach the Standard" (pp. 18-
40), John Rickford first provides the background against which the Oakland
School Board's Resolution on Ebonics was made, namely, to find a solution
to the massive educational failure within the African American community.
The key argument of Rickford's chapter is that, contrary to what some in
the US media have claimed, Ebonics is relevant to the educational success
of AA students, a point that is also echoed in Wiley's chapter. Therefore,
Ebonics should be used as a bridge to the standard. Rickford observes that
the failure of AA children to do well in school tends to be attributed to
factors such as the lack of good facilities, qualified teachers, school
supplies and parental involvement; and teachers' negative attitudes
towards and lower expectations for their AA students. In addition to these
factors, Rickford argues, there is the language question, to which he
proposes three approaches. First, teachers need to be linguistically
informed about the distinction between mistakes that AA students make in
reading and differences in pronunciation. An AA student who simplifies the
consonant cluster in the word 'tests', for instance, has not necessarily
made a mistake. Rather, the student decodes this word according to the
pronunciation pattern of their home dialect, Ebonics. The second approach
is a bi-dialectal contrastive analysis in which teachers draw students'
attention to the differences and similarities between their home dialect
and the standard variety and teach them about the contexts where it would
be appropriate to use one variety or the other. The third approach
involves teaching student in the vernacular first and then switching to
the standard.

John Baugh's chapter, "Educational implications of Ebonics" (pp.41-48),
discusses Ebonics, its history and educational implications, with a focus
on the following questions: What are the best educational policies for the
academic welfare of AA students and other students from low income and
underprivileged backgrounds? Should educators alter educational standards
for the poor, or for those who do not speak English, or should educational
programs be adapted to help less fortunate students compete more
effectively with affluent students who have learned Standard English
natively? Is Ebonics a separate language, or is it a dialect of English?
What is the legal linguistic classification of American slave descendants?
In an attempt to address some of these issues, Baugh distinguishes three
linguistic categories of speakers of English in the United States. These
include (i) speakers for whom Standard English is native; (ii) speakers
for whom Standard English is not native; and (iii) speakers for whom
English is not native (p.42). Unlike Kifano and Smith (see below), Baugh
does not consider Ebonics as a separate language. Rather, he places
Ebonics and its speakers in category (ii), as defined above. Accordingly,
he endorses the view that educational programs should be adapted to help
minority students including AA students succeed in school.

In her chapter, "Black language and the education of Black children: One
more once" (49-61), Geneva Smitherman seeks, as she did in the 1979 court
case opposing Martin Luther King Junior School against Ann Arbor School
District Board in Detroit, Michigan, "to drop some knowledge on the
subject of Black language"(p.50). Smitherman says the term "Ebonics" was
coined by a group of Black scholars, principal among them the clinical
Psychologist Dr Robert L. Williams, at a conference on language and the
Black child, held in St Louis Missouri in January 1973. In its original
definition, as Baugh points out in his chapter (p. 45), the term Ebonics
was not synonymous with Black English or, later, African American
Vernacular English (AAVE). Rather, it was broadly used to refer to: "..
the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum
represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and
United States slave descendants of African origin. It includes the various
idioms, ... idiolects, and social dialects of Black people, especially
those who have been forced to adapt to colonial circumstances. 'Ebonics'
derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of
sound) and refers to the study of the language of Black people in all its
cultural uniqueness." (p. 51).

For Smitherman, Ebonics is, besides its structural characteristics, an
Africanized style of using European languages, a system of communicative
practices. The second part of Smitherman's chapter presents the breadth of
the research tradition on Ebonics and concludes with the question of what
needs to be done to ensure that Black students do not stay in school
longer than they need to, but are rather able to compete more effectively
with their colleagues in the mainstream American society. She proposes
that "we work for a national multilingual policy" .. ".. within an
educational framework for social change" (p. 59).

In the following chapter, "Ebonics and education in the context of
culture: Meeting the language and cultural needs of LEP African American
students" (pp. 62-95), Subira Kifano and Ernie Smith examine the
Africologist/ Ethnolinguistic theory of the origins and historical
development of African American English. At the heart of the Africologist
theory is the claim, which Kifano and Smith endorse, that Ebonics (or
African American speech) is not a variety of English (p. 71). It is, in
their view, "the linguistic continuation of Africa in an African American
context. That is, African American speech is both typologically and
genetically African" (p. 65). The theory echoes the policy adopted by the
Oakland School District Board in December 1996, which states unequivocally
that Ebonics is not a variety of English: ".. African Americans (1) have
retained a West and Niger-Congo African linguistic structure in the
substratum of their speech and (2) by this criteria (sic!) are not native
speakers of Black dialect or any other dialect of English" (p.75).

Drawing on their view that Ebonics and [Standard American] English are
separate languages, Kifano and Smith argue that "English language
instruction is appropriate for African American Ebonics-speaking students"
(p. 83). For English language instruction to be effective, the authors
argue, it must be preceded by instruction in the students' first language,
Ebonics. That is, as John Rickford would put it, schools should use the
vernacular to teach the standard. In so doing, they recognize and respect
the rich culture of Ebonics-speaking students and the prior linguistic
knowledge that they bring to learning.

Carolyn Temple Adger contributes the book's last chapter, "Language
varieties in the school curriculum: Where do they belong and how will they
get there?" (pp.96-108). The author's key argument is that the school
curriculum needs to include accurate information about dialect
differences/language variation and about the contexts in which it is
appropriate to use one dialect or another. Also, she argues that dialect
awareness should become an integral part of pre-service as well as in-
service teacher training. It is hoped that such an awareness will aid
teachers to change their attitudes towards language variation, to value
and respect the speech of their AA students, and to abandon the myth of
one true, invariant, uniform (Standard) English. Like previous
contributors to this volume, Adger suggests additive bi-dialectal
instruction where AA students' dialect (i.e. Ebonics) serves as the basis
of second dialect (i.e. Standard English) development.

Part II of the book introduces the reader to the background documents on
the Ebonics debate. The first set of documents (pp. 115-131) includes the
Original Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Resolution on Ebonics and
related clarifications in response to the reaction by the media, the
legislature and the public to the original resolution. The key point of
OUSD resolution was that African-American students perform poorly in
reading and language arts because English is not their native language.
Therefore, a program had to be devised "to facilitate [these students']
acquisition and mastery of English language skills (p.117)". Such a
program would offer additive bi-dialectal instruction as suggested by
Adger and other contributors to the present volume.

The second set of documents (pp. 135-151) includes examples of legislative
reaction, among them the Congressional Response (p.135), the State of
Virginia's reaction (p. 136-141), the State of California's reaction
(p.142-148), and John Rickford's response to the latter (pp.149-151). In
the main, all the legislative reactions to the OUSD resolution aim to
contest the premise that Ebonics is a language, and to ensure that no
state or federal fund is used to pay for any educational program that is
based on such a premise. In his response John Rickford reiterates the
point he has made in his chapter, that "mastering the standard variety is
more effectively achieved by approaches which take the vernacular into
account than by those which ignore or try to condemn it into nonexistence"
(p. 149).

The next document (pp. 155-158) presents the legal background to an
earlier, 1979 Ebonics court case in Ann Arbor, Michigan, pitting Martin
Luther King Junior Elementary School children et al. against Ann Arbor
School District Board. In that historic case distinguished scholars, among
them Geneva Smitherman, testified to the existence of Ebonics, pointing
out that it is a variety of the English language but different in
significant respect from Standard English (p. 156). Also, the scholars
argued that both Ebonics and Standard English have a role to play in the
life and education of AA students. The students need Ebonics "to maintain
status in their community and Standard English to succeed in the general
society" (p.156). It is noted further, as is the case in the Oakland
Ebonics debate, that any attempt to instruct AA students in Standard
English while denigrating the students' dialect is, for obvious reasons,
not likely to succeed. Similar arguments are advanced in the next set of
documents by linguists (pp.161-182) such as Charles Fillmore, Walt
Wolfram, John Rickford, and William Labov; and by professional
organizations (pp.185-196) such as TESOL, American Association for Applied
Linguistics, Center for Applied Linguistics, and California Association
for Bilingual Education. The last section of the book offers a list of
useful scholarly references (pp. 199-207) for further reading on Ebonics.


The reader will find this well-written, well-researched and insightful
book a rich source of information about Ebonics, what it is and what is
not, and why it is opposed by some but supported by others especially in
regard to its status and the potential role it can play in the education
of African American children. I would like to comment first on the
name 'Ebonics' itself. It seems to me that this name may have contributed
to what Wolfram (p. 171) identifies as 'the separate language issue' and
the 'the African base issue' that the Ebonics resolution has raised, and
to the ensuing negative reaction by many against the use of Ebonics in the
education of African American children. Recall that in his paper John
Baugh remarks (p.45) that in its original definition Ebonics was not
synonymous with Black English or African American Vernacular English, a
point that Smitherman also highlights in her chapter (p.50). Against this
background, it would be more appropriate for the literature to give more
prominence not to the name Ebonics but rather to African American
Vernacular English (AAVE). Unlike Ebonics, AAVE does not raise the
question whether African Americans speak English as a native language, nor
does it raise the issues identified (above) by Walt Wolfram. It is
encouraging to note, however, that whatever name (e.g. Ebonics or AAVE)
they use for the home variety of African American children the
contributors to this volume all share a common concern. They concur that
if schools are to help African American students acquire Standard English,
which is the key to educational success for every child in the United
States, they need to acknowledge language variation and diversity and
build on the prior linguistic knowledge that African American (and other
minority) students bring to learning.

My second comment concerns the issue on which the contributors do not
speak with one voice, namely the origins of AAVE and more specifically the
question whether AAVE is a separate language or a variety of the English
language. The majority of contributors to this volume share the view that
AAVE is a native variety of American English, albeit a non-standard one.
However, in their paper (pp. 62-95) Kifuno and Smith (p. 71) do not share
this view, as observed earlier with respect to their
Africologist/Ethnolinguistic approach to AAVE. Once again, according to
this approach AAVE is NOT a variety of English. It is a separate language
whose origins are in Africa. The question of the origins of AAVE has been
the subject of several studies, the most recent ones being Wolfram &
Thomas (2002); Poplack & Tagliamonte (2001); Lanehart (2001), to list a
few. In their book, African American English in the Diaspora, Poplack and
Tagliamonte (2001) address the origins question by analyzing the speech of
the African Americans themselves in three diaspora settlements of Samana
(Dominican Republic), Guysborough and North Preston (Nova Scotia, Canada).
They conclude that AAVE has evolved (not from a Creole but) internally
from an early variety, or what they call Early African American English,
whose distinctive character resides in its phonology and retention of
features in the face of ongoing grammaticization and change.

In a related book, The Development of African American English, Wolfram
and Thomas (2002) examine the speech of African Americans in Hyde County,
North Carolina, with a focus on the nature of intra-community language
variation in and the effect of regional dialects on earlier AAVE, the
trajectory of language change in earlier and contemporary AAVE, and the
role of the substratal influence from earlier language contact situations
between Africans and Europeans. Like Poplack and Tagliamonte (2001),
Wolfram and Thomas argue that AAVE has developed from an earlier African
American English, and that several factors (e.g. linguistic,
sociolinguistic, socio-historical, socio-psychological, ideological) have
contributed to its development. Lanehart's (2001) edited volume,
Sociocultural and historical contexts of African American English, does
have a whole section including chapters by Guy Bailey, Patricia Cukor-
Avila and David Sutcliffe in which the authors offer insights into the
evolution of AAVE. The chapter by Sutcliffe (pp. 129-168), in particular,
provides further support for the idea of an earlier African American
English as the source of contemporary AAVE. Taken together what these and
related studies show is that AAVE is unquestionably a variety of the
English language. Indeed, AAVE does have features whose origin can be
traced to West and Niger-Congo African languages. However, such features
do not, by any account, make AAVE an African language. The media hyped the
debate on AAVE not only because OUSD sought to use AAVE as a bridge in
teaching Standard English to African American students, but also and
perhaps most importantly because OUSD claimed, like Kifuno and Smith do in
their paper, that AAVE is a separate language. This approach must be
challenged. It is isolationist, disempowering and detrimental to the
academic and social welfare of African American students.

All in all, Ebonics is an excellent addition to the literature on African
American Vernacular English (AAVE). Its clear style makes it wholly
accessible to anyone who is interested in issues in language and
education/miseducation of African American children. The discussion of
such issues tends to mask linguistic discrimination. The latter, as
Terrence Wiley observes, "is often a surrogate for more racism and other
forms of social prejudice"(p. 12). Educators and legislators in particular
will find this book extremely instructive, for it provides a pedagogically
sound and convincing argument for AAVE: the variety can serve as a bridge
in teaching the standard to AA children because children learn by building
on the linguistic knowledge they already have. Finally, I would have liked
an update on the current status of AAVE in the American educational
contexts. It is not clear from the book what became of the OUSD amended
resolution on Ebonics. Assuming that the amended resolution has not been
implemented, what approaches do schools in the Oakland District (and
throughout the country) use to help African American students succeed in
education? Or, is it the case that the issue has simply been shelved in
the hope that AA children themselves will somehow find a solution to their
language needs? A discussion of these issues should but make the next
edition of Ebonics, I should say African American Vernacular English, even


Lanehart, Sonja L. (2001, ed.) Sociocultural and historical contexts of
African American English. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Poplack, Shana and Tagliamonte, Sali (2001) African American English in
the Diaspora. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Wolfram, Walt and Thomas, Erik R. (2002) The Development of African
American English. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Nkonko M. Kamwangamalu is a graduate of the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. He teaches Linguistics and English at Howard University
in Washington, D.C. His current research interests include codeswitching,
multilingualism and language policy, language and identity, African
Englishes, African American Vernacular English, and African linguistics.

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