EBONICS: Penn Linguist Talks about the Talk

In testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Linguistics William Labov weighed in with his views and his expertise about the controversy stirred up when the Oakland, Calif., school board passed a resolution to use Ebonics to teach African-American students reading and writing.

Labov, who is past president of the Linguistic Society of America and a member of the National Academy of Science, has done a number of studies of language in the African-American community, beginning with work in South Harlem for the Office of Education that aimed at the question, "Are the language differences between black and white children responsible for reading failure in the inner city schools?"

The Compass has excerpted some of Labov's Senate testimony in a question-and-answer format.

Is Ebonics a legitimate term?

The term "Ebonics," which is our main focus here, has been used to suggest that there is a language, or features of language, that are common to all people of African ancestry, whether they live in Africa, Brazil or the United States.
Linguists who have published studies of the African-American community have not used this term, but refer instead to African American English, or Black English, meaning all the ways that the English language is used by African Americans in this country. This covers a very wide range, from a standard English almost identical with the standard English spoken by others, to the African American Vernacular English spoken by most residents of the inner city.

Are we talking about a language or a dialect?

This African American Vernacular English is a dialect of English, which shares most of the grammar and vocabulary with other dialects of English. But it is distinctly different in many ways, and more different from standard English than any other dialect spoken in continental North America. It is not a set of slang words, or a random set of grammatical mistakes, but a well-formed set of rules of grammar and pronunciation that is capable of conveying complex logic and reasoning.

How widespread is the use of African American Vernacular English?

As the result of the research of the past 30 years by teams of African-American and Euro-American linguists, we now know more about this dialect of English than any other non-standard dialect in any language. Research in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities shows a remarkably uniform grammar throughout the country, spoken by African Americans who live and work primarily with other African Americans. Repeated studies in city after city show that about 60 percent of the African-American residents of the inner city speak this dialect at home and with intimate friends.

What experiences enable African Americans brought up speaking dialect to shift to standard English?

Exposure to standard English on the mass media, or from teachers in schools, has little effect upon the home language. Those African Americans who have extensive face-to-face dealings with speakers of other dialects show a shift of their grammar in the direction of these other dialects. African Americans who are raised in a standard-English environment, or who acquire standard English in later life ... often can speak in a way that is accepted by inner city residents, but the actual grammar they use is quite different.

How did African American Vernacular English evolve?

In the first two decades of research, linguists were divided in their views of the origin of African American English: whether it was a Southern regional dialect descended from nonstandard English and Irish dialects, or the descendant of a Creole grammar similar to that spoken in the Caribbean. By 1980, a consensus seemed to have been reached, as expressed in the verdict of Judge Charles Joyner in the King trial in Ann Arbor: this variety of language showed the influence of the entire history of the African-American people and was gradually converging with other dialects ... .
However, research in the years that followed uncovered a surprising new tendency in the opposite direction. In many of its important features, African American Vernacular English was becoming more different from other dialects. Furthermore, research in the language of ex-slaves born in the 19th century, and [in] the letters of freed slaves, showed that some of the most prominent features of the modern dialect were not present then. It appears that the present-day form of African American English is not the inheritance of the period of slavery, but the creation of the second half of the 20th century.
Research in rural and urban areas shows that the modern dialect was formed as the result of the Great Migration of southern rural blacks to large cities, primarily in the North. The increasing difference between the language of African Americans in the inner city and other dialects is correlated with increasing residential segregation.
Although many of the features of African American Vernacular English are new, they may indirectly reflect the African heritage of black Americans, since they are in the direction of the type of grammatical features that are found in West African languages.

Should African American Vernacular English be used to teach African-American children?

An important aspect of the current situation is the strong social reaction to suggestions that the home language of African-American children be used as a basis for learning to read and write. The Oakland controversy is the fourth major reaction that I know of to proposals to introduce children to reading and writing in a language closer to their home language than standard English, and move them gradually to the reading and writing of standard English.
Many leaders of the African-American community believe that there is no distinctive African American English, and that the dialect described by linguists is simply the same "bad English" that is spoken by uneducated people anywhere. The suggestions for transitional programs have been regularly reported to the public as plans to teach the children to speak African American English, or Ebonics, and to prevent them from learning standard English. As a result, only one such program has been thoroughly tested in the schools, and even that program, though very successful, was terminated because of objections to the use of African American English in the classroom.

What is your view on using a home language to teach reading and writing?

At the heart of the controversy, there are two major points of view taken by educators. One view is that any recognition of a nonstandard language as a legitimate means of expression will only confuse children and reinforce their tendency to use it instead of standard English. The other is that children learn most rapidly in their home language, and that they can benefit in both motivation and achievement by getting a head start in learning to read and write in this way. Both of these are honestly held and deserve a fair hearing. But until now, only the first has been tried in the American public school system. The essence of the Oakland school board resolution is that the second deserves a fair trial as well.

Originally published on January 28, 1997