Ebonics: An American Imprint

By: Larry Zhang, Senior Editor

In a nation defined by a culture that is constantly changing and refining the way it conforms with today’s society, Americans are in no shortage of exposure to a multitude of ethnic influences. America, founded on the collective ideals of peoples from all over the world, is essentially a “melting pot” in which previously unfamiliar social and cultural norms are made familiar through cultural diffusion. One critical component which defines any group of people is the way they communicate, known to us as simply “language.” Language dictates the way we shape our thoughts, ideas, emotions, and intentions. Simply put, language is the medium through which communication occurs, allowing the modern world to advance to where it is now.

In the U.S., English has been subject to an immeasurable amount of outside influence- whether it originates from Europe, Latin America, or Africa. Immigrants from these reaches of the world have brought their native languages with them, diffusing their culture through the way they communicate. However, immigrants to the U.S. have not only added to the diversity of languages within America, but have also reformed the linguistic characteristics of English itself– the de facto language of America. One dialect of English, which some have argued as a separate language altogether, continues to mold our everyday speech and push the subcultural boundaries of America with ever-increasing controversy. One particular dialect of English is its largest nonstandard dialect, often referred to as “Ebonics.” Less known  as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), it is essentially the portmanteau of two words, “ebony” + “phonics.” Ebonics is most commonly used by urban and working-class African Americans who are likely to be bi-dialectal, and thus speak both Ebonics and Standard American English. However, to assume all African Americans or only African Americans speak this dialect of English is to assume essentially that they are completely segregated from Americans of other races (Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic)- an assumption that is largely fallacious.

Unsurprisingly, Ebonics shares many characteristics with another dialect of English– Southern American English. This correlation can be largely attributed to historical and socioeconomic factors such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, leading to a relatively large African American population in the American South. Shared features, such as the use of distinctive vocabulary, double negatives, regional phrases, and pronunciations have all attributed to a greater diffusion of Ebonics and related dialects in both African and non-African American populations. More than ever before, the outreach of this particular dialect of English is rapidly growing through migration, contact, and popular culture. As Ebonics continues to evolve and reshape the linguistic geography of the U.S., it also heightens the controversy associated with its use– both inside and outside African American communities.

Ebonics has been the source of heated nationwide debate for decades in the United States for two main reasons: instructional use in the classroom and linguistic classification. The Oakland Ebonics Controversy, a name given to the controversial school board resolution that was passed on December 18th, 1996 by the Oakland School Board, recognized Ebonics as a distinct linguistic form. The board argued that Ebonics was the “genetically-based” language of African American students and intended to instruct “African American students in their primary language [Ebonics] for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language… and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills.” The board also intended to request federal funding from the government for the bilingual instruction of its students- an instruction that would include the teaching of Standard American English. However, negative publicity soon spurred the board to modify its original resolution to one that would educate students about their vernacular and how to use it as a tool to translate from Ebonics to Standard American English.

The resolution leads us to ponder on whether or not Ebonics should be considered as a separate language, or if it is merely a dialect of English. Although Ebonics does share and exhibit many of the grammatical and lexical features of the West African language family, it is nonetheless a largely comprehensible and understandable form of English. What makes Ebonics such a crucial topic is that it represents, in a way, the socioeconomic discrepancies that abound within our nation. When social mobility is low, dialects flourish; when mobility is high, the opposite is true. While this is confirmed, one cannot help but to think if Ebonics is worthy of being considered any form of language at all, or whether it is simply lazy, poor usage of Standard American English. Although Ebonics does not carry the social stature of standard forms of English, it, however, undeniably enriches and evolves our usage of language so that English is anything but dull, but rather dynamic, stimulating, and vigorous, to say at the least.

What, then, does Ebonics spell for the future of American English? Does it have the potential to corrupt our language, enhance our language, or both? Simply put, Ebonics is subject to the individual speaker and his or her ability to adapt to different social circumstances. When speakers are exposed to enough forms of the English language, they can subconsciously shift from the polite to the impolite, the informal to the formal, and the superficial to the intimate forms of speech. Ebonics, thus, has both the power to change the English language for better and for worse; This change, in fact, is seen everyday with African American literature, music, sports, comedy, and other aspects of a culture that is becoming more and more integrated into mainstream American culture. Contemporary “pop culture” now undeniably includes influence from African American culture; For instance, a film may express the thoughts and speech from an actor, and a particular rap song on the radio may be a household name.

In conclusion, Ebonics may be ridiculed by some as nonsensical jargon, even though it is far from useless in today’s world. To say that the distinct linguistic heritage of a group of people is “useless” and “trivial” fails to recognize the very foundation of the U.S., a nation formed and reformed through the contributions of African Americans. Ebonics represents not only a unique linguistic form to America, but also the longevity of a cultural that has survived ever since this nation was founded. The adherence, acceptance, and advancement of such a linguistic culture has been progressively growing, though, as it constantly evolves and adapts with advancements in societal norms and customs. Only time can tell, however, if such a precious imprint on the English language will survive and continue to exist without fear of being oppressed for “unorthodox” linguistic and cultural values.