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WHAT IS EBONICS?

Ebony + Phonics

This is not a new term — the earliest reference I can find is from 1975, and it is said to be older still — but it has until now been a specialist one among some writers for what mainstream linguists prefer to call the Black English Vernacular or African-American Vernacular English and has not commonly been found in dictionaries. The word is a rather infelicitous blend of Ebony, a near-synonym for “Black”, and phonics, “the science of sound or of spoken sounds”; it is as much a political as a linguistic term. It is used to emphasize the distinctive grammar and vocabulary of African-American speech, which, it is argued, derive at least in part from various Niger-Congo African languages and are a relic of slavery. Whether Ebonics is a dialect of English, a creole or a separate language is open to argument, though the first of these is the received view. It has suddenly hit the headlines world-wide as a result of the decision by the Oakland School Board in California in December 1996 to recognize Ebonics as a separate linguistic entity whose speakers need assistance in becoming fluent in standard American English.

Ebonics is greatly misunderstood, largely because of how it gained global attention during a racially charged education controversy in Oakland, California. On Dec. 18, 1996, the Oakland School Board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics to be the language of 28,000 African-American students within that school district. Few people had ever heard of the term Ebonics prior to the passage of that resolution, to say nothing of how it was created or originally defined.

Dr. Robert Williams, an African-American social psychologist, coined the term Ebonics in 1973. His goal was to combine the words “ebony” with “phonics” to refer to “black sounds.”Williams and several other African-American social scientists had gathered that year at a conference sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to discuss the psychological development of black children. Williams and his associates had been displeased with the term Black English and began to ponder the alternatives.

Williams recounted the creation of Ebonics as follows:

We need to define what we speak. We need to give a clear definition to our language. …We know that ebony means black and that phonics refers to speech sounds or the science of sounds. Thus, we are really talking about the science of black speech sounds or language. (Williams, 1997a)

Although the preceding statement offers an early, vague conception of Ebonics, the term was formally defined in 1975 when Williams published an edited volume, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. In it, he classified Ebonics as the

…linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. (Williams, 1975)

 


 

   

 
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