October 21, 1998

African-American Language

"There are two ways of talking. One way if you want a job, and that other way."
--Chris Rock

From October 1996 to June 1998, I was a graduate student in the linguistics department at the University of Chicago. During part of my stay there, linguistics got some coverage in the corporate media and gained a greater degree of awareness in the public consciousness. (A great many interesting and poignant articles came my way during this time as well--hence the reason for this page.) The reason had to do with a December 18, 1996 decision by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in Oakland, California. The district affirmed that the speech of inner-city African-Americans was different from that of other variants of the language, which could impede the education of inner-city African-American children. The OUSD chose to work with, rather than against, this fact.

Linguists who study this variant of English have referred to it as African- American English, but it has known by many different names, including Black English Vernacular (BEV), Vernacular Black English (VBE), African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, pronounced "ave"), and -- the most commonly known name -- Ebonics. The word "Ebonics" dates back to 1973, when psychologist Robert Williams published a 1975 book on the topic --Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. The word itself is a portmanteau (a combination-word) of "ebony" and "phonics". (University of Michigan linguist John Lawler called the name "ebonics" "surely the worst language name ever manufactured" in a usenet posting)

With equal parts confusion, ignorance, and misunderastanding, the corporate media and American public would vilify this decision and the reasons for it. Cal-Berkeley linguist Charles Fillmore chronicled the vilification in an informative and readable article, "Semantics and the Ebonics Debate".

Just weeks after OUSD announced their decision, the Linguistics Society of America held its annual meeting (in Chicago, no less), in which the LSA made public a resolution supporting the OUSD Decision. Another Chicago connection to the matter: the chair of the University of Chicago, Salikoko Mufwene, submitted an op-ed to the New York Times, and co-edited a book on the topic (with John Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh): African-American English: Structure, History, and Use, available from Routledge press. Another pertinent, readable, and important book that talks about AAE (among other language variants) is English With an Accent, by a former professor of mine, Rosina Lippi-Green.

There is a vast body of scholarship spent on AAE; a comprehensive bibliography on the subject was compiled at Colgate University.

(Final note to academic quiz competitors, including NAQT and CBCI: you CANNOT write a respectable tossup question on BEV using linguistic facts. To do so would invariably bring in facts that can refer to a host of other languages, and would lead to a misleading question. The best anyone can do is to write a question about terms like BEV or Ebonics, but bringing in linguistic facts into a question can be dangerous.)