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Ebonics (also known as African American Vernacular English) is a readily distinguishable dialect of American English. The term comes from combining of the words ebony and phonics. Simililar to common Southern American English, the dialect is spoken in many African-American communities in the United States, especially in urban areas. It has its origins in the culture of enslaved Americans and also has roots in England, mixed with elements of West African languages.

A linguistics professor at Washington University created the term in 1973, then detailed it in his 1975 book, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks[?].


It was, briefly, a controversial topic in the United States, mainly over its linguistic status. Proponents of various bills across the country, most famously in a unanimously-passed proposition from the Oakland, California school board on December 18, 1996, desired to have Ebonics officially declared a language or dialect. Doing so would affect funding- and education-related issues. Other opinions on Ebonics range from it deserving official language status in the US, to it being dismissed in precepts consistent with racism, while many non-linguists doubt its status as a distinct language or dialect. Proponents of Ebonics-education believe that African-American students would perform better in school if textbooks and teachers acknowledged Ebonics as a different language or dialect from standard[?] American English. Most linguists and education-experts believe that it is easier to learn literacy skills in one's native tongue and then transfer it to a different language or dialect. No proposal suggested actually teaching Ebonics; rather, teachers were encouraged to accept that some or all of their students have a non-standard dialect as their native tongue, and to teach standard English not by proscribing non-standard characteristics, but by treating the issue as a need for education in translation. Ebonics also clarified the speech of black students for teachers. For example, it showed that the dropping of the final -d or -t from past participles was not, as many educators had believed, a sign that black English avoided the simple perfect (since speakers of Ebonics use irregular preterites appropriately).

As a language develops, its use by isolated and diverging people also becomes isolated and divergent. "Ebonics" is largely based on the Southeastern American-English accent, an influence that has no doubt been reciprocal as the dialects diverged. The traits of Ebonics which separate it from standard English include: Changes in pronunciation along definable patterns, distinctive slang, as well as differences in the use of tenses. Some of the changes can be traced to common similarities among West African languages.

Sociologists, linguists and psychologists generally believe that it is common for oppressed people (as, for example, African slaves in the Americas) to adopt a radically different dialect from their oppressors. This is done to subtly rebel against the oppressor and his culture, and to differentiate themselves, as well as to foster pride among their community. Slaveholders, and white Americans of more recent years, generally considered the changes in speech to be due to inferior intelligence. While many aspects of Ebonics seem like simplifications of standard American English, there are unique aspects that help make Ebonics as complex as any other language or dialect.

Characteristics of Ebonics The most distinguishing feature of Ebonics is non-standard tense aspects, which can indicate the habitual nature of the performance of the verb. In standard American English, this can only be expressed using adverbs like usually.

  • The invariant use of be is used to describe a habitual action (e.g. He be eating rice, meaning he regularly/frequently/habitually eats rice); this may be derived from creole dialects which use does be similarly, common in Gullah, Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados. The word steady can also be added to form the present intensive habitual progressive (i.e. He be steady preaching, meaning He is often/habitually/usually preaching in an intensive, sustained manner).
  • BIN (a stressed form of standard been) is used as a marker indicating that the action was begun at some subjectively defined point in the past. (e.g. She BIN had that house, meaning She's had that house for a long-time and still has it); this is called the present perfect progressive with remote inception. Speakers of standard American English often misinterpret this tense, believing that, in our example, the woman no longer has that house but used to have it.
  • A non-stressed bin indicates the present perfect progressive (i.e. He bin talking to her, meaning He has been talking to her).
  • Be done is used as a tense marker to indicate the conditional perfect, a future in the hypothetical past (e.g. Soon, he be done fixing the leak, meaning Soon, he will have fixed the leak)
  • The present progressive (He is running) drops the form of to be (He running)
In addition, negatives are formed differently from standard American English:
  • Multiple negations (e.g. I didn't go nowhere) are common in Ebonics, but considered unacceptable in standard American English (see double negative)
  • The -s verb ending in the present tense third person singular is dropped (e.g. She write poetry)
  • If the subject is indefinite (e.g. nobody instead of Sally or he), it can be inverted with the negative qualifier (turning Nobody knows the answer to Don't nobody know the answer, also adding multiple negation). This emphasizes the negative, and is not interrogative, as it would be in standard American English.
Other grammatical characteristics:
  • The -s ending indicating possession is usually dropped, with the genitive relying on adjacency. This is similar to many creole dialects throughout the Caribbean Sea.

Some of these characteristics, notably double negatives and the use of bin for has been are also characteristic of general colloquial American English.

See also:

External Links

a resolution from the Linguistic Society of America (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/ebonics.lsa) in support of the Oakland school board's decision

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