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For Ebonics, the New Milennium Is Pretty Much Like the Old One

Language and Culture (Anthro News Blog)

I am delighted to announce the launch of the Language and Culture column on the Anthropology News blog. Jacqueline Messing, Richard Senghas and I will be sharing editorial duties for the blog for the coming year. My first act as co-editor was to ask Ronald Kephardt for an update on Ebonics and am really pleased he agreed to participate. His column is below. The original piece on the blog is at:

Do drop by and leave a comment or give the piece some stars! All readers of this blog are also invited to think about if they have a 600-1000 word commentary on some language and culture issue that they think a general anthropological audience would be interested in. We can add as many columns as we have good submissions for. Pieces not quite appropriate for the general Anthropology News, whether they are shorter, longer or more technical including descriptions of current work can always find a good home on the SLA website itself.

I will stop hijacking this conversation and let you get on to Ron’s very interesting piece.

all best,


For Ebonics, the New Milennium Is Pretty Much Like the Old One
Guest Columnist
Ronald Kephart

It has been just about forty years since books and articles documenting the linguistic validity of the various forms of African American English began to appear in serious numbers. Dell Hymes’s edited Pidginization and Creolization of Languages came out in 1971. A year later, William Labov published Language in the Inner City, which included his classic article The Logic of Non-Standard English. In 1973 J.L. Dillard published Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States, and that same year Bentley and Crawford published their Black Language Reader. And so it went. Through the years others, including John Rickford, Geneva Smitherman, John McWhorter, and others too numerous to mention, have added their voices to the chorus calling for the public acceptance of African American English and for the rational, humane treatment of its speakers, especially schoolchildren. Meanwhile, the Ann Arbor Court Decision of 1979 established Ebonics as a legitimate dialect of English, so that school teachers and administrators were legally required to take it seriously and stop assuming that the children who spoke it were empty vessels into which real language had not yet been poured.

And yet… When the Oakland, California, School Board decided in 1996 to declare Ebonics a “language” for the purpose of receiving funding to enhance the teaching of Ebonics speaking children, a firestorm broke out. Prominent African Americans, like Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, and Jesse Jackson, criticized the move. There were even Senate hearings! The Linguistic Society of America published a statement of support, but how many ordinary people read it, I wonder? In hindsight we can say that Oakland broke Weinreich’s Law: A Language is a Dialect with an Army and Navy. Speakers of Ebonics in Oakland, California, did not have an army and navy, so they couldn’t have a language either.

Despite the occasional Oakland-type controversy, one wants to think that progress has been made over the years, and perhaps it has. But in August 2010 I was interviewed by News 4 Jacksonville (WJXT), our local television station. The interview, which you can see here, was prompted by a call from the Drug Enforcement Agency for “translators” who could assist their agents in understanding the language on surreptitiously recorded telephone calls between alleged drug dealing Ebonics speakers and their customers.

In the interview, I pointed out that Ebonics or African American Vernacular English is a valid form of human language, with all the linguistic properties of French, Spanish, or any other language. I suggested that a combination of phonological, grammatical, and lexical features of AAVE could easily combine to render it not understandable to people unfamiliar with this language variety, and I gave a couple of examples (not included in the video):

She be working at Publix.

It’s a book on the floor.

I also offered the opinion that there might be ethical issues involved when professional linguists take on the task of helping the DEA carry out its policies, and I drew the analogy with the American Anthropological Association’s resolution condemning the use of anthropologists by the military in the “Human Terrains System” in Iraq and elsewhere. This sort of made it into the video, though they didn’t show me saying it.

Soon after the online story appeared on August 26, 2010, about 150 comments were posted, nearly all deriding, in one way or another, the idea that Ebonics could be a language or even a dialect. Unfortunately, the comments are no longer available, but at the time I copied and saved a handful.

Some people are so lazy they can’t even muster enough energy to talk right. Pathetic.

Ebonics is now a dialect because white people are scared to tell them they are stupid, let’s just call the elephant in the room out, the 60′s are over, it’s time for blacks to come on over and sit at the American table, obviously having a culture within a culture isn’t working for them.

How the he!! is Ebonics considered a dialect? It sounds like your talking with a mouth full of sh!t

And here’s my favorite:

I get the need for the “translators” but for some academic walking brain to classify ebonics as a dialect is further proof of just how far society will go to coddle those too lazy to speak properly!

The one relatively positive comment that I was able to find:

Back in the late 80′s while in college, I took a linguistics class. The teacher was black, of an island nation not Africa (This is relevant due to the topic). I don’t recall the details, but he did make a convincing stand regarding Ebonics as a dialect. I know Ebonics just sounds like a bunch of uneducated talk, but before you jump educate yourself a bit.

Every semester for the past twenty-two years I’ve had students enter my classes with opinions similar in substance, if not in form, to the above comments. This suggests to me a catastrophic failure of the public school “language arts” curriculum: people spend years in various language arts classes and leave with the same 19th-century folk notions that they started with. In part, this reflects the failure of anthropologists and linguists to command a louder voice in public education. It’s not all our fault, though. For one thing, relatively few students ever get to take a linguistics course. Those that do occasionally report changes in perspective, but in our culture people resist making adjustments to their received folk theories about African American language (the same resistance applies to folk theories of “race”).

If the topic is physics, most people are happy to defer to physicists; if the topic is digestion, even though most people can digest food, they still defer to the gastroenterologists. But if the topic is language, everyone thinks they’re a linguist.

Columnist: Ron Kephart, rkephart (at)

Editors of Language and Culture Column: Leila Monaghan, leila.monaghan (at); Jacqueline Messing, jmessing (at); Richard Senghas, richard.senghas (at)

This entry was posted in Opinion and tagged Language and Culture

5 thoughts on “For Ebonics, the New Milennium Is Pretty Much Like the Old One”

  1. I’m not sure it’s entirely true that people are happy to defer to physicists and gastroenterologists on matters of physics and gastroenterology. I think it just happens to be the case that what physicists and gastroenterologists say happens, mostly by sheer coincidence, to overlap strongly with people’s preconceptions.

    For example, UK parents regularly freak out because their kids are being taught to do maths using methods that are different from the methods they were taught when they were at school, and of course there are large parts of America in which people are certainly *not* happy to defer to biologists on the question of evolution.

    I think linguists are in a uniquely terrible position because they work in a field about which people have *so many* preconceptions most of which are *so wrong*.

  2. I believe Ebonics is a language rather than a dialect – the differences between it and Standard English are greater than with a simple English dialect. There is a distinctive and traceable history. In fact, according to research done in Texas (found through the film, Do You Speak American, a PBS Special), modern day Ebonics differs from Standard English far more than the plantation English spoken by slaves did. It has gone down a completely different path than Standard English, which, if we delve more deeply, has been influenced time and time again by the language of Ebonics: ie, jazz, cola, tote, etc.
    I think one thing that consistently holds Ebonics back is the fact that it is not concretely identified one way or the other, and there are so many terms to describe it – Black English, AAVE, etc. No wonder we can’t make up their minds about it, no one can even come up with a single term to claim it with.

    Good post though.

  3. I retired from teaching nearly fifteen years ago. I am a native american man who returned to my
    neighborhood to make a difference with young people.
    I have a decidedly non-liberal stance when it comes to educating the young.
    I established a charter school where personal responsibility was a given.
    Our methods were highly regarded, with a waiting list for children who wanted to study with us.
    Our students came from all over the world and all that we asked
    of them was to be willing to work. Those who would not apply themselves left.
    On the matter of ebonics, it may be a dialect of sorts, but to the ear of an english speaker,
    it is ugly, clumsy, and paints the speaker as being vastly ignorant.
    Liberal apologists too often jump to the defense of those who will not strive, inventing or co-signing
    onto excuses and exceptions to maintain some status quo to “save face”. In the real world, these rationalizations serve to keep people in poverty, to promote ignorance and isolation.
    Our langua franca is American English, and to navigate the marketplace and dwell in communities of
    diversity, American English serves it’s purpose. “Insider languages” or code speech serves to isolate
    and keeps others at a distant. It is a hallmark of cult behavior.
    Children will always practise exclusive behavior, in dress, actions or speech. But to legitimize
    and integrate exclusive behavior is to “play not to lose”. Translated that means, go along to get
    along. Our struggling education system seems to pass the problems on to some unspoken mysterious
    future where things will hopefully be sorted out. Therein dwells the lie.
    The sorrow of ebonics is that it creates one more sorry excuse for educators and critics to maintain
    their focus on black children. “The poor things- we must do something to help them! Let us purchase
    more basketballs and hoop nets to show that we mean well!”
    To make an exception for students based on color or creed is too often another nail in the coffin of learning.

  4. I’m just so sorry to burst the bubble of thought that is inclined to actually believe Ebonics is a valid language. The practice of dropping the “T” off the end of any word that has one (Firs, Las, Bes, actually First, Last, and Best), not knowing the difference between “she house” and “her house”, and phrases like, “I went over Mamma’s house”, is simply lazy speech. Notice that African-Americans who cling to this slave-like speech pattern of poorly stitched together wording, are not ever hired to speak on television news programs? There is a clear and distinct reason for this. Just as the current President B.Obama doesn’t use ebonics, it isn’t proper, and is indicative of one belonging to not just low class people, but low-low class people. I will never forget watching The Jefferson’s and hearing their house keeper say, in an attempt to sound like she had class, “I still doesn’t have no champagne.” that line drew plently of laughs simply because it was clearly very poor wording which was completely out of character for someone of real class. We were all taught to read and write proper English in our public education (those of us who cared to pay attention and learn something). Some chose instead to imitate their parents and friends more “street” version of speech. My parents were both “from the country” and both spoke with that particular manner. I was conscious of it and deliberately chose to not ever use that speech pattern as I didn’t want anyone to think I was uneducated because to me that is exactly how it sounds. Some people are a bit too proud to portray the image of a low class and under educated in their everyday lives. Ebonics doesn’t make you Black, it restricts you and identifies you as belonging to a lower class of person. On the flip side of that, proper King’s English does not make you White, it identifies you as someone who paid attention in school and learned how to choose and use the proper words in a sentence.

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