Ebonics Notes and Discussion

John R. Rickford
December, 1996

(1) Some sample sentences in AAVE/Ebonics, with discussion of the ways in which they show the systematicity of AAVE:

  1. AAVE: "She BIN had dat han'-made dress" (SE: She's had that hand-made dress for a long time, and still does.)
  2. AAVE: "Befo' you know it, he be done aced de tesses." (SE Before you know it, he will have already aced the tests.)
  3. AAVE: "Ah 'on know what homey be doin." (SE: I don't know what my friend is usually doing.)
  4. AAVE: "Can't nobody tink de way he do." (SE: Nobody can think the way he does.)
  5. AAVE: "I ast Ruf could she bring it ovah to Tom crib." (SE: I asked Ruth if/whether she could bring it over to Tom's place.)

Although AAVE does have some distinctive lexical items (e.g. homey and crib in the above examples), much of what people know from rap and hip hop and other popular Black culture is slang, young people's vocabulary--which is almost by definition subject to rapid change, and which in many cases crosses over or diffuses to other ethnic groups, becoming almost an icon of youth culture itself. The heart of AAVE, the part that is shared across most age groups (although they tend to be used most frequently by teenagers) and that link it most strongly to the language's origins in the creole speech of slavery (compare parallels with creole dialects in the Caribbean today or in Hawaii), is its phonology and grammar. These are the parts that tend to be less often diffused to other groups, and that are the most lasting and the most regular. The single biggest mistake people make about AAVE is dismissing it as careless, or lazy speech, where anything goes. As with all spoken languages, AAVE is extremely regular, rule-governed, and systematic.

WRT the grammar: Note in the above examples the tense-aspect markers "BIN" (a stressed form, marking the inception of the action or state at a subjectively defined remote point in time), "be done" (a future or in this case a conditional perfect, a future in the hypothetical past), and invariant habitual "be" (a form which has clear parallels with and possible derivations from creole "does be"--as used up to today in the Gullah off the coast of south Carolina and Georgia, or in Barbados, Trinidad, and Guyana). It is the complex tense-aspect system of AAVE which distinguishes it most strikingly from SE, and which led Nobel prize winning journalist Toni Morrison to remark (in an interview in The New Republic on March 21, 1981) that:

There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my [AAVE] language. It's terrible to think that a child with five different languages comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. . . . This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the standard English. I want to use it to restore the other language, the lingua franca. (p. 27)

The other grammatical features of interest in the above sentences are the double negative and negative inversion, and zero third person present tense -s forms in (4), and the inverted embedded question and zero possessive -s in (5). The so-called "double negative" (marking the negative on the indefinite quantifier "Nobody" as well as on the auxiliary verb "can't") is of course a shibboleth of English grammar, said to be bad because two negatives make a positive. In actuality, no one is ever confused in real life--no logical problems arise--and the feature was widespread in Shakespearean and earlier varieties of English, as it is today in many English varieties around the world. Negative inversion involves the possibility of inverting the negative quantifier and auxiliary (Nobody can't--> Can't nobody) with the semantics of an emphatic affirmative (i.e., #4 is NOT a question!). The construction is actually quite complex (my colleagues Peter Sells and Tom Wasow wrote a long article about it in one of the 1996 issues of Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, a journal for formal theoretical linguistics), but as proof of its systematicity, note that you can only invert a negative auxiliary to the position at the head of the sentence when its subject is a negative indefinite (i.e., you can't take a sentence like "John can't do it" and convert it to *"Can't John do it!" unless the latter is a question).

WRT the rules for question formation in 5, William Labov (my dissertation supervisor and mentor at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and a leading authority on AAVE) reported in his 1972 book, Language in the Inner City, that Black street-wise teenagers whom he interviewed found it almost impossible to repeat SE sentences with uninverted questions in his "memory tests," e.g. (p. 62):

Test pattern: I asked Alvin if he could go.
Boot: I as' Alvin could he--could he go.
Test pattern: I asked Alvin whether he knows how to play basketball.
Boot: (1st) I asked Alvin--I asked Alvin--I can't--I didn't quite hear you.
(2nd) I asked Alvin did he know how to play basketball.
(3rd) I asked Alvin whether--did he know how to play basketball.

This remarkable transformation, which occurred with about half of the members of the Thunderbirds peer group interviewed by Labov and his colleagues, shows on the one hand how perfect the understanding of the SE test pattern was but on the other hand how deep seated were the systematic patterns of AAVE. What these repetitions show us is instant translation--an asymmetrical competence in which understanding or reception is possible both in AAVE or SE, but in which production is in AAVE only.

The other feature of sentence (5)--the absence of a possessive -s, and reliance on the adjacency to express the possessive relationship, is found throughout the Caribbean and West African pidgins and creoles, and in pidgin/creole languages (resulting from mixture and simplification in language contact) more generally.

Now for a few quick remarks on the phonological or pronunciation features in these sample sentences.

Sentences 1, 2, and 4 all show the conversion of SE "th" to AAVE "t" or "d" in word-initial position, depending on whether the th" is voiced--with vibration of the vocal cords--as in "the/de" or voiceless--without vibration of the vocal cords--as in "think/tink." Note the systematicity of this alternation, which reveals a pronunciation distinction which even Standard English orthography conceals (i.e. English "th" can be either voiceless or voiced; English "t" is voiceless and "d" is voiced, and by noting which one realizes "th" in AAVE, you can tell which of the English "th " forms were voiceless or voiced.) Note that voiceless "th" can also become voiceless "f" or voiced "v" in word final or medial position, as in "Ruf" (sentence 5), or "bruvvah" (brother), again depending on the voiced or voiceless nature of the English "th." Sentences 2 and 5 also show us the deletion or vocalization of post-vocalic (after a vowel) -r, as in "Befo'" and "ovah.' Although this occurs in other American English dialects, it is more common in AAVE, and occurs in some linguistic environments (e.g. in word internal positions, as in "Ca'ol" for "Carol") where other dialects don't allow it.

Sentences 1 and 2 illustrate consonant cluster simplification (hand-->han', test-->tes', which becomes plural "tesses" by the same English rule that gives us plural "messes" from singular "mess." The systematicity of this rule is shown by the fact that is generally applies (deleting the second in a sequence of two consonants at the end of a word, especially if they are either "t" or "d") only if both consonants are either voiceless (as in "teST") or voiced (as in "haND"), but not if one is voiced and the other voiceless (as in "paNT", which does NOT become "pan'"!). The only exceptions are negative auxiliary forms like "can't" and "don't" which can lose the final voiceless "t" even though it follows a voiced "n."

Finally, a phonological comment on the absence of initial "d" in "Ah 'on know." This is interesting, because it unites AAVE with creole Englishes in the Caribbean and Pacific in which a word-initial voiced stop (b, d, or g) can be deleted if it occurs in a tense-aspect auxiliar, as in "don't" or (originally) in the "didn't" that gave rise to AAVE "ain't" (AAVE is the ONLY English ialedt which uses "aint" for SE "didn't"), or the "gonna" that yields to "ama do it" (with no g) in AAVE. Creole examples include variation between future go and o in Suriname, bin and in in Jamaica, da and a in Gullah, and so on. I first discovered and wrote about this regularity in an article which I published back in 1974. It is a subtle and remarkable feature which is not shared by any other (non-Creole) dialects in North America or England.

Finally--and this has become longer than anticipated--a few words on the word "Ebonics," which the Oakland press release used for what is generally known now as AAVE. The term was first used in a book called "Ebonics: The true language of Black folks," by Robert L. Williams (1975). It was actually coined two years earlier at the conference whose proceedings were published in that book. The term was defined by the editor, Robert Williams (p. VI) as "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represents the communicative competencee of the West African, Caribbean, and United States idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social forces of black people ... 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 allits cutural uniqueness." AsWilliams noted, p.VIII-IX), the Black participants at that conference felt that contemporaneous alternative terms like "nonstandard English" and "broken English" were inaccurate, and tinged by some degree of white bias. However, the term, which flourished for a while in the 1970s (see the June 1979 special issue of the Journal of Black Studies, which was devoted to Ebonics), did not really catch on outside of the Afrocentric community, and Black English, now AAVE, is more popular in Linguistics. A final thought or two. Do I agree with the Oakland decision? Well, yes, to the extent that it forces teachers and the public to come to terms with the systematicity and ubiquity of AAVE among African American youth, and especially because research has shown that the prospects for teaching children to read and write initially in AAVE are better than they are with current methods which do NOT take AAVE into account. (See the article on "Dialect Readers Revisited" which my wife Angela and I wrote in Linguistics and Education 7 (1995).) The fact of the matter is that working class, inner city African American kids are WAY behind on reading and the language arts, and the language that they bring to school--which the schools currently do NOT take into account--appears to be one of the factors in their failure, and one of the factors which, in a sensitive and skilled program, could become a factor in their success. AAVE clearly shares much in common with other varieties of english, including Standard English. But it also has very systematic differences in its grammatical and phonological subsystems, and these are sufficient, I think, to present a stumbling block in the teaching of reading and writing which White kids, and kids of many other ethnicities, do not have to overcome. Oakland's decision to take it into account in the teaching of standard English (note that this is the aim, and NOT the teaching of Ebonics or AAVE per se as the California State superintendent and others seem to have misinterpreted it) is a bold and innovative step which deserves commendation and support. The bottom line is that alternative programs which DO NOT take AAVE into account are flat out not working.

Feel free to contact me (415-725-1565) if you wish further information.

John R. Rickford

PS: For information, I teach a course on "African American Vernacular English" (Linguistics 73) at Stanford which has had enrollments of 74 and 98 for the past two years. I am coauthoring a book on "African American Vernacular English" with Lisa Green (Univ of Texas at Austin) for Cambridge University Press, and coediting a book on "African American English" for Routledge with Salikoko Mufwene, John Baugh and Guy Bailey. Both should be out by 1998.

(2) For an introduction to AAVE, including lists of phonological and grammatical features, an overview of the historical issues, and a discussion of its educational implications, see my 1996 article, "Regional and Social Variation" in Sociolinguistics for Language Teachers, ed. by Sandra McKay and Nancy Hornberger (Cambridge University Press). For copies of the relevant pages, contact Jack Hubbard, Stanford News Service, 415-725-1294.