Black English

Black English, also referred to as Black English Vernacular (BEV), African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, is a dialectal adaptation of Standard American English found primarily within the African American community. The term refers primarily to patterns of speech that some scholars believe developed during the slavery period in America, as Africans learned English by adapting it to the linguistic patterns of their native dialect. Other scholars argue that Black English developed out of pidgin English, an amalgamation of Standard American English and several African dialects, which facilitated communication within a culturally heterogeneous slave population. It is largely held that this method of communication, while varying regionally, gained a level of permanence throughout the African American community because of the segregation it frequently experienced. Although Black English has traditionally been depicted negatively within American society, contemporary pop culture has adopted many Black English colloquialisms and added them to the American English lexicon.

Syntax of Black English

Studies of the syntax of Black English have frequently attributed its deviations from Standard English to West African language rules. For example, the lack of consonant pairs in many West African languages is seen as responsible for the elimination of consonants in Black English; thus, for example, the word just becomes jus. Similarly, the lack of r and th sounds in West African languages leads to substitutions such as souf for south and dis for this. Frequent absence of the verb be in present-tense Black English (e.g., “They so noisy!”) can be attributed to the lack of such an equivalent in many West African languages.

Controversy Involving Black English

In 1996, the Oakland Unified School District of Oakland, California, sought to increase academic performance among African American students by recognizing Black English, or Ebonics, as a distinct language and its speakers as bilingual. The school district intended to enhance English proficiency among poorly performing African American students by, among other things, linking their experience to that of English as a second language learners. It was the school district’s contention that Black English was the primary language of the home for many African American students, and their limited English proficiency was, as with other ethnic groups, related to interference from their most commonly spoken tongue.

This proposed curricular conceptualization met significant resistance within the field of education as well as within segments of the African American community itself. Many saw Black English as simply incorrectly spoken English or as broken English and not a language deserving of recognition or curricular considerations. Others misinterpreted the intentions of the Oakland Unified School District as seeking to instruct students in Black English as opposed to Standard English. Although the Oakland School District’s initial attempt to incorporate vernacular speech patterns into English instruction was met with opposition, this topic continues to surface among educators of African American students.

References:

  1. Mufwene, S. S., Rickford, J. R., Bailey, G., & Baugh, J. (1998). African-American English: Structure, history and use. New York: Routledge.
  2. Rickford, J. R., & Rickford, R. J. (2002). Spoken soul: The story of Black English. New York: Wiley.
  3. Smith, E. (1995). Bilingualism and the African American child. In M. Ice & M. Saunders-Luca (Eds.), Reading: The blending of theory and practice (pp. 90-91, 93). Bakersfield: California State University.
  4. Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. Van Keulen, J. E., Weddington, G. T., & Debose, C. E. (1998). Speech, language, learning and the African American child. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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