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Ebonics and Linguistic Science: Clarifying the Issues

Walt Wolfram
North Carolina State University

National Science Foundation
January 30, 1997

1. Issues Framing the Oakland Ebonics Controversy

  • Underlying socio-educational and political issues

  • Facts and fantasies about dialect diversity

  • The challenge for (socio)linguistic education

2. The Role of Social Scientists in Public Affairs (Rickford forthcoming)

Principle of Error Correction

A scientist who becomes aware of a widespread idea or social practice with important consequences that is invalidated by his [sic] own data is obligated to bring this error to the attention of the widest possible audience. (Labov 1982:172) Principle of the DebtIncurred An investigator who has obtained linguistic data from members of a speech community has an obligation to use the knowledge based on that data for the benefit of the community, when it has need of it. (Labov 1982:173)

Principle of Linguistic Gratuity

Investigators who have obtained linguistic data from members of a speech community should actively pursue ways in which they can return linguistic favors to the community. (Wolfram 1993:227)

3. Synopsis of Resolution:

On December 18, 1996, the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education approved a policy affirming Standard American English development for all students. The policy mandates that effective instructional strategies must be utilized in order to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve English language proficiency. Language development for African American students, who comprise 53% of the students in the Oakland schools,will be enhanced with the recognition and understanding of the language structures unique to African American students. This language has been studied for several decades and is variously referred to as Ebonics (literally "Black sounds"), or "Pan-African Communication Behaviors,"or African Language Systems." * (Oakland Unified School District's"Synopsis of the Adopted Policy on Standard American English Development")

* Most linguists, black and white, still prefer the term "African American Vernacular English" (AAVE) to the term "Ebonics"and other alternative terms for the variety referred to in the resolution.However, the label has nothing to do with the linguistic status of the language variety.

4. Some Statements and Issues Generating a Controversial Media Event

  • The Separate Language Issue Resolution Statement: "African Language Systems have origins in West and Niger-Congo [African] languages and are not merely dialects of English."

  • Popular Interpretation: Ebonics is a separate language.

    Linguistic Understanding: Language varieties may be comprised of components from different languages and dialects of English; language and dialect exist on a continuum.

  • The African Base Issue Resolution Statement: "...recognizes the existence and the cultural and historic bases of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems, and these are the language patterns that many AfricanAmerican students bring to school"

  • Popular Interpretation: Ebonicsis an African language.

    Linguistic Understanding: Language varieties may fuse different language donor sources in the formation of a distinct variety;this is natural and widespread. One hypothesis on the origin of AfricanAmerican English posits a link with creoles found in the African diaspora(e.g. Sierra Leone Krio, Jamaican Creole, Gullah).

  • The Genetic Issue Resolution Statement: "African Language Systemsare genetically based and not a dialect of English." (in December18 resolution only) Popular Interpretation: African Americans are biologically predisposed towards a particular language.

  • Linguistic Understanding: "Genetic"in the study of historical linguistics refers to linguistic origins, not biological predisposition. For example, one might say that German and English are genetically related because they come from the same historical source,or "language family."

  • The Bilingual Issue Resolution Statement: "the English language acquisition and improvement skills of African-American students are as fundamental as is application of bilingual or second language learner principles for others whose primary languages are other than English."

  • Popular Interpretation: Speakers of Ebonics should qualify for federally funded programs restricted to bilingual populations, for example, Spanish-English bilingual programs.

    Linguistic Understanding: Speakers of varieties other than standard English should have access to programs where they can learn standard English; it is advantageous for such programs to take into account the systematic differences of the native language variety.

  • The Teaching Issue Resolution Statement: "...implement the best possible academic program for the combined purposes of facilitating the acquisition of and mastery of English language skills, while respecting and embracing the legitimacy and richness of the language patterns whether they are known as 'Ebonics', 'African Language Systems', 'Pan African Communication Behaviors', or other description."

  • Popular Interpretation: Students will be taught in Ebonics and teachers will be taught to use Ebonics ininstruction.

    Linguistic Understanding: Students' community dialects will be respected and affirmed in the teaching process, and standard English will be used as the medium of instruction for schools.

5. The Linguistic Society of America Resolution on the Oakland EbonicsIssue

Whereas there has been a great deal of discussion in the media and among the American public about the 18 December 1996 decision of the OaklandSchool Board to recognize the language variety spoken by many African American students and to take it into account in teaching Standard English, the Linguistic Society of America, as a society of scholars engaged in the scientific study of language, hereby resolves to make it known that:

a. The variety known as "Ebonics," "African American Vernacular English" (AAVE), and "Vernacular Black English" and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems--spoken, signed, and written--are fundamentally regular. The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years.Characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant,""lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or"broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.

b. The distinctionbetween "languages" and "dialects" is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones. Forexample, different varieties of Chinese are popularly regarded as "dialects,"though their speakers cannot understand each other, but speakers of Swedishand Norwegian, which are regarded as separate "languages," generally understand each other. What is important from a linguistic and educational point of view is not whether AAVE is called a "language" or a"dialect" but rather that its systematicity be recognized.

c. As affirmed in the LSA Statement of Language Rights (June 1996), there are individual and group benefits to maintaining vernacular speech varieties and there are scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity.For those living in the United States there are also benefits in acquiring Standard English and resources should be made available to all who aspire to mastery of Standard English. The Oakland School Board's commitment to helping students master Standard English is commendable.

d. There is evidence from Sweden, the U.S., and other countries that speakers of other varietiescan be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. Fromthis perspective, the Oakland School Board's decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard Englishis linguistically and pedagogically sound.

Chicago, Illinois
January 1997

6. Some Real Linguistic Issues Related to the Current Study of AfricanAmerican Vernacular English (from Wolfram 1991:106-116)

  • The relationship between African American and Anglo American Vernacular varieties e.g. same or different, how different, distance from standard, etc.

  • The origin of African American Vernacular English e.g. the Creolist (derived from a creole predecessor) vs. the Anglicist hypothesis (derived from British dialects)

  • The direction of change in African American Vernacular English e.g.present-day divergence vs. convergence, historical shifts, change in relation to surrounding varieties of English


7. Rationale for Dialect Awareness Programs in American Education

  • The humanistic rationale

  • The equity rationale

  • The scientific rationale

  • The socio-historical rationale

  • The utilitarian rationale

8. An Example of Systematic Dialect Patterning: Dialect Study as Scientific Inquiry (from Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, and Hazen 1996)

In some dialects of English, some words that end in -ing can take an a-, pronounced as uh, in front of the word. Try to figure out this rule in several steps by looking at the kinds of -ing words a- can and cannot attach to. Do this by appealing to inner feelings, or intuitions, about the sentence pairs.

Look at the sentence pairs in LIST A and decide which sentence in each pair sounds better for attaching the a-. For example, in the first sentence pair, does it sound better to say, "A-building is hard work" or "He was a-building a house?" For each sentence pair, just choose one sentence that sounds better with the a-.

LIST A: Sentence Pairs for A- Prefixing

1. a. __ Building is hard work.
b. __ She was building a house.

2. a. __ He likes hunting.
b. __ He went hunting.

3. a. __ The child was charming the adults.
b. __ The child was very charming.

4. a. __ The speaker was shocking the audience with her stories.
b. __ The story was shocking.

5. a. __ They thought fishing was easy.
b. __ They were fishing this morning.

6. a. __ The fishing is still good here.
b. __ They go fishing lessnow.

Examine each of the sentence pairs in terms of the choices for the a-prefix and answer the following questions. The first step in figuring out the pattern for a- prefix is related to the part of speech of the -ing word. Now let's look at another difference related to prepositions such as from and by. Based on the sentence pairs in LIST B, say whether or not the a- form can be used after a preposition. Use the same technique you used for LIST A. Select the sentence that sounds better for each sentence pair and say whether it is the sentence with or without the preposition.

LIST B: A Further Detail for A- Patterning

1. a. __ They make money by building houses.
b. __ They make money building houses.

2. a. __ People can't make enough money fishing.
b. __ People can't make enough money from fishing.

3. a. __ People destroy the beauty of the island through littering.
b. __ People destroy the beauty of the island littering.

We now have another detail for figuring the pattern for the a- prefixuse related to prepositions. But there is still another part to the pattern for a- prefix use. This time, however, it is related to pronunciation.For the following -ing words, try to figure out what it is about the pronunciation that makes one sentence sound better than the other. To help you figure out the pronunciation trait that is critical for this pattern, the stressed or accented syllable of each word is marked with the symbol ´. Follow the same procedure that you did in choosing the sentence in each sentence pair that sounds better.

LIST C: Figuring Out a Pronunciation Pattern for A- Prefix

1. a. __ She was discóvering a trail.
b. __ She was fóllowing a trail.

2. a. __ She was repéating the chant.
b. __ She was hóllering the chant.

3. a. __ They were fíguring the change.
b. __ They were forgétting the change.

4. a. __ The baby was recognízing the mother.
b. __ The baby was wrécking everything.

5. a. __ The were décorating the room.
b. __ They were demánding more time off.

Say exactly how the pattern for attaching the a- prefix works. Be sure to include the three different details from your examination of the examples in LISTS A, B, and C.

In LIST D, identify which of the sentences may attach an a- prefix and which may not. Use your understanding of the rule to explain why the -ing form may or may not take the a- prefix.

LIST D: Applying the A- Prefix Rule

1. She kept handing me more work.

2. The team was remémbering the game.

3. The team won by playing great defense.

4. The team was playing real hard.

5. The coach was charming.

9. Systematicity in Ebonics: The Case of Habitual BE

The form be in African American Vernacular English refers to an action that takes place lots of times. It does not usually refer to an action that takes place only once. This is the reason that be sounds better in a sentence like They usually be tired when they come home than it does in a sentence like They be tired right now. In the following sentences,this dialect pattern is shown in italics, along with responses from a sample of African American sixth grade children.

Number of People Who Choose Answer

1. (32) a. They usually be tired when they come home.
(3) b. They be tired right now.

2. (31) a. When we play basketball, she be on my team.
(4) b. The girl in the picture be my sister.

3. (4) a. James be coming to school right now.
(31) b. James always be coming to school.

4. (24) a. Wanda be going to school every day.
(11) b. Wanda be in school today.

5. (3) a. My ankle be broken from the fall.
(32) b. Sometimes my ears be itching.


Labov, William. 1982. Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science. Language in Society 11: 165-211.

Rickford, John. forthcoming. Linguistics and the speech community: Service in return. Language in Society.

Wolfram, Walt. 1993. Ethical considerations in language awareness programs. Issues in Applied Linguistics 4: 225-255.

Wolfram, Walt. 1991. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs,NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wolfram, Walt, Natalie Schilling-Estes, and Kirk Hazen. 1996. Dialects and the Ocracoke Brogue. 8th grade curriculum. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Language and Life Project.