Views of linguists and anthropologists on the Ebonics issue (Part 2)

Compiled by Leila Monaghan of Pitzer College for the February 1997 Society for Linguistic Anthropology column

This is the second half of a discussion begun earlier in the newsletter on the Oakland School Board's Ebonics controversy. In this column Charles Fillmore discusses some of the language used in the declaration, Susan Ervin-Tripp points out some of the differences between students who speak AAVE and English as a Second Language students, and John Clark discusses how differences are "accomplished" by various actors in a such situations. Also below are a bibliography of further works, a list of websites and the traditional "Useful Addresses" of every SLA column. Many thanks to all who helped put this issue together, particularly Aaron Fox who circulated the lyrics to "Why is That?"

Charles J. Fillmore, Linguistics, UC Berkeley

"Language" is one of the words responsible for much of the confusion in the discussion about the Oakland School Board's decision. Others are "dialect", "slang", "primary language", and, unfortunately, "genetic". Neither side in these debates uses these words in ways that facilitate communication. Perhaps a linguist can introduce some much-needed clarification.

The words "dialect" and "language" are confusingly ambiguous. These are not precisely definable technical terms in linguistics, but linguists have learned to live with the ambiguities. We can use the word "language" to refer simply to the linguistic system one acquires in childhood. In most normal contexts, everybody grows up speaking a language. If there are systematic differences between the language you and your neighbors speak and the language my neighbors and I speak, we can say that we speak different dialects.

The word "language" is also used to refer to a group of related dialects, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding when to refer to two linguistic systems as different dialects of the same language or as different languages of the same language family. There are empirical criteria for grouping ways of speaking to reflect their historical relationships, but there is an arbitrary element in deciding when to use the word "language" for representing any particular grouping. (Deciding whether BBC newsreaders and radio evangelists from Lynchburg, Virginia, speak different dialects or different but related languages is on the level of deciding whether Greenland is a small continent or a large island.)

There is a different and misleading way of using these words for situations in which, for social or political reasons, one dialect comes to be the preferred means of communication in schools, commerce, public ceremonies, etc. According to this second usage, reflecting a kind of folk theory, what the linguist would simply call the standard dialect is referred to as "the language", the others as "mere dialects", thought of as falling short of the perfection of the real language. An important principle of linguistics is that the selection of the prestige dialect is determined by accidental extralinguistic forces, and is not dependent on inherent virtues of the dialects themselves. According to the folk theory, the "dialects" differ from the language itself in being full of errors.

On the question of whether there is a definable linguistic system, spoken by many African Americans, with its own phonology, lexicon and grammar (and dialects!), there is already a huge body of research. The question of whether twenty-seven thousand African American children in Oakland schools come from families that speak that language has to be an empirical question, not an issue for tapping people's opinions.

There is a common-sense core to the Oakland school board's plans. All over the world children show up in school speaking a variety of language that differs in some great or small way from the variety they're about to start learning. Where the discrepancy is slight, and where (as in most parts of the world) nobody would think of telling the children to give up their home language, the difference can be easily bridged. But in all cases it is just commonsensical for teachers to do whatever they can to make students aware of the differences. The case made by the board is for doing this in a way that isn't demeaning to the children. Such elementary concern for the children's self-esteem has been ridiculed by some as a meaningless gesture of "political correctness", a belief that children should never be corrected. But clearly, a child who can say freely, "In my dialect we say it like this" is better able to profit from a language-learning experience than a child who is simply always told that everything he says is "wrong".

The Oakland school board's public statements should, however, show a clearer understanding of what they are getting into. The changes needed will not be trivial, and will have to include the daunting job of sensitizing teachers to a language many of them have wanted to believe does not exist. Much of the public debate suggests that the new classroom practice will be mostly a matter of displaying respect for the children's home language, and making students aware of the pronunciation of "with" as "wif", the uses of "be", and multiple negation. But anybody who has looked at the linguistic structure of the African American vernacular knows that there's a lot more to it than that.

The school board has made an important proposal: that the work of helping speakers of AAVE to learn the language of the school will be easier and more effective if it is seen as building on a home language whose properties the children are encouraged to examine, rather than as an endless process of "correcting mistakes". If that's all the new policy achieves, it will have been worth all the fuss. If teachers can attain precise understandings of the nature of that language, that will be even better. And if all of this discussion encourages everyone involved to make whatever other changes need to be made to improve the school performance of African-American students in the district, Oakland will achieve a new and more welcome kind of fame.

Susan Ervin-Tripp, Psychology, UC Berkeley

An important distinction seems to be lost in the analogy between AAVE and bilingual situations. In the case of immigrants, comprehension and even phonological discrimination are at issue (in ESL classes I used to ask students to raise their hands to identify whether I had said shit or sheet, bitch or beach, so I know they couldn't HEAR the difference.)

American children understand media English well since they have been exposed all their lives to these forms of standard English in films and television. What we are talking about is speaking in a certain way, which is fundamentally a social-emotional issue in the case of social variation. Children's capacities to do highly effective role playing and code-switching suggest a route to deal with developing this kind of oral practice, if that is what school boards want. That is a way to turn receptive knowledge into oral use. Whether piecemeal "error-correction" labeled as "translation" works remains to be seen. It appears that this move by the Oakland schools was basically intended to change teacher attitudes and clean up the idea that these kids have "lazy speech".

John T. Clark, Linguistics, Georgetown

My research looks at how African American high schoolers acquire or choose not to acquire elite-aspiring (a.k.a. "Standard English") rhetorical discourse styles. I would like to point out one aspect of the debate that has received little attention. And that aspect is the students' own choice in the matter of learning elite-aspiring English. I am surprised that this is the case, given the fact that much of the recent media attention _before_ the Oakland brouhaha (in every venue from the NY Times and the Washington Post to the Oprah Winfrey Show) being paid to the question of African American students and their language seemed to focus on the students own choice in the matter, especially when the choice turned out to be the refusal to "talk White." (check out Signithia Fordham's work in which she reports on how successful Black students cope with the "burden of acting White")

The exact role that cultural differences play in the breakdown of smooth communication is a sort of chicken-and-egg question. Do, as John Gumperz argues, differences in conversational strategies precipitate a breakdown in communication, or, as Ray McDermott and Frederick Erickson have pointed out, do social actors seize upon these cultural discourse differences in order to accomplish the breakdown? I have found that resistance theory as articulated by Erickson 1987 captures the complexity of the issue: After the linguists and the media have laid out what the language differences (whether morphosyntactic or discourse/rhetorical) are, after talented, dedicated teachers in well-heated buildings become skilled in drawing the students' attention to AAVE/elite-aspiring English differences, it is the students who have the final word. Heck, they have the first word as well as they _know_ what the linguistic differences are, and they are skilled at either deliberately learning them or deliberately not learning them and shunning those who choose otherwise. The pedagogical issue, as Erickson says, is the issue of trust. This trust is both an institutional phenomenon, (located over broad stretches of time and access to monetary and cultural capital) as well as it is an emergent one ("the short time scale of everyday encounters between individual teachers, students and parents")


Below is a short selection of articles and books cited by the authors in this issue of AN, and some of the other classics and cutting-edge works in the field. The list has been compiled from works suggested by the authors and other members of the linganth e-mail list and books suggested by the Linguistics Society of America. As has been pointed out, much of this work is widely available but little known, and public discussion suffers because of it. Further bibliographic information can be found at the websites listed below.

Baugh, J. (1983) Black Street Speech: its history, structure and survival Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bloome, D. and J. Lemke, eds. (1995) Special Issue: AfricanizedEnglish and Education. Linguistics and Education 7:2.

Butters, R. (1989) The death of Black English: Convergence and divergence in American English. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Dandy, E. (1991) Black communications: Breaking down the barriers. Chicago: African American Images.

DeStephano, J. ed. (1973) Language, society and education: A profile of Black English. Worthington, OH: Charles A. Jones.

Dillard, J. L. (1972). Black English: Its history and usage in the United States. New York: Random House.

Erickson, F. (1987) "Transformation and School Success: The Politics and Culture of Educational Achievement" Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 18: 4.

Fordham, S. (1996) Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High. U. of Chicago Press.

Gadsden, V. and D. Wagner , eds. (1995). Literacy among African American youth. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Kochman, T. (1981). Black and white styles in conflict. New York: Holt Rinehart.

Labov, W. (1972) Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, W. (1982) "Objectivity and Commitment in linguistic science: The case of the Black English trial in Ann Arbor" Language in Society, 2: 165-201.

McDermott, R.P. and K. Gospodinoff. (1981) "Social Contexts for Ethnic Borders and School Failure" in H. Trueba, G.P. Guthrie and K. Hu-Pei Au, eds. Culture and the Bilingual Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.

Morgan, M. (1994a) "Theories and Politics in African American English" Annual Review of Anthropology, 23: 325-45.

Morgan, M. (1994b) "The African-American Speech Community: Reality and Sociolinguists." in M. Morgan ed., Language and the Social Construction of Identity in Creole Situations. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for African American Studies.

Mufwene, S. S., J. R. Rickford, G. Bailey and J. Baugh, eds. (To appear). African American English. London: Routledge.

Ogbu, J. and S. Fordham. "Coping with the Burden of Acting White" In Urban Review 18:3 1986.

Rickford, J. (1977) "The Question of Prior Creolization in BlackEnglish." in A. Valdman ed. Pidgin and Creole Linguistics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rickford, J. R. and A. Rickford (1995) "Dialect Readers Revisited" in Linguistics and Education, 7:2.

Rickford, J. R., and L. Green. (To appear). African American Vernacular English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, E. A. (1994) The historical development of African American Language. Los Angeles: Watts College Press.

Smitherman, G. ed. (1981). Black English and the Education of Black Children and Youth. Detroit: Center for Black Studies, Wayne State University Press.

Smitherman, G. (1986). Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Smitherman, G. (1994) Black Talk. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Spears, A.K. (1988) "Black American English" in J.B. Cole, ed. Anthropology for the Nineties. New York: Free Press.

Taylor, H. (1991) Standard English, Black English, and bidialectalism: a controversy. New York: Peter Lang.

Williams, R. L. 1975 Ebonics: The true language of Black folks. St. Louis: Institute of Black Studies.

Wolfram, W. 1991. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall and Center for Applied Linguistics.


Three websites with information and extensive bibliographies on African American English are:

John Rickford's (Stanford):

A website at Colgate:

and Harold Schiffman's (U Penn) webpage on AAVE and education:

Jim Wilce's (N Arizona U) website has an archive created by Susan Ervin-Tripp (UC Berkeley) of newspaper articles on the subject as well as an archive of the original discussions on the linganth e-mail network. Included here are the original and revised Oakland School Board declarations and the official statement from the Linguistic Society of America:

The linganth list homepage has links to all of the above:

Useful Addresses

Judith Irvine, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology Editor, Dept of Anth, Brandeis U, Waltham, MA 022549110;; fax 617/7362232.

Pamela Bunte, SLA Program Chair, Dept of Anth, CSU-Long Beach, Long Beach, CA 90840;

AAA 9197 Orthography Panel: Alexandra Jaffe, Dept. of Anthro/Soc, U of Southern Mississippi, Box 5074, Hattiesburg, MS 39401; or Harriet Ottenheimer, Dept of Soc/Anthro & Social Work, Waters Hall, Kansas State U, Manhattan, KS 66506;

Leila Monaghan, SLA column editor,, Pitzer C, 1050 N. Mills Ave, Claremont, CA 91711, fax 909/621-8481.