The Ebonic Plague?

Language and how we use it.
Jan. 9 1997 3:30 AM

The Ebonic Plague?

Nope, no sudden outbreak here. Black English--whatever the name--has been around for centuries.

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"I mean, really, it seem like everybody and they momma done had something to say on the subject!" The sentence comes from Geneva Smitherman, a professor of English, the director of the African-American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University, the author of the books Talkin and Testifyin (1977) and Black Talk (1994), and one of the people quoted most frequently by reporters and commentators seeking context for the national controversy over "ebonics"--a form of Black English recently granted official recognition as a separate language by the Oakland, Calif., school board.

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As it happens, though, Smitherman's words have nothing to do with the Oakland school board's action. They were written two decades ago, when the vernacular used by many blacks in America's inner cities and the rural South was receiving its first round of national attention, partly as a result of influential works of scholarship such as J.L. Dillard's Black English (1973). A few years later, in a widely publicized ruling, a Michigan court ordered local school districts to take account of Black English. The most remarkable element of this story, in other words, is how unchanging it is. The central pedagogical problems (low achievement by large numbers of black students, and how to reach these students), the scholarly arguments (how should Black English be characterized?), the flashes of racial feeling, the sober (and dyspeptic) public commentary--one could transplant it all from one era to another, without risk of anachronism.

To recap the events of the present era, then--briefly: On Dec. 18, 1996, the Oakland Unified School District unanimously endorsed a resolution whose ulterior intentions remain unclear, but which, at the very least, declares that the "primary language" spoken by many of its 28,000 black students is not English. It is a distinct language--not a dialect, not nonstandard speech--called "ebonics" (a combination of "ebony," meaning "black," and "phonics"). The resolution asserts that deficiencies in black educational achievement cannot be remedied unless the prevalence of ebonics is recognized and somehow dealt with. What might "somehow dealt with" involve? Representatives for the Oakland schools have given answers that sometimes conflict with the wording of the resolution itself on such issues as whether ebonics would or should be a language used in formal instruction (as opposed to something that teachers simply should be given financial incentives to be aware of and conversant in); whether ebonics would itself be taught as a subject; and whether claiming the status of a distinct language for ebonics was, in fact, a ploy to shake loose federal bilingual-education dollars (an outcome immediately ruled out by Richard W. Riley, the secretary of education).

Needless to say, the confrontational language of the Oakland resolution, and the ill-advised statement that ebonics is "genetically based," did nothing to stifle criticism. (Click to read the full text of the resolution.) The educational politics of this issue will no doubt play themselves out in the usual messy American way--and, with luck, they will do so beyond the glare of publicity (that being where experimental educational programs that involve the inner-city vernacular but avoid the manifestos are already taking place).

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T wo points deserve mention.

First, the word "ebonics," which dates back to the early 1970s and has been used even in some public-school settings without controversy for years, may seem to be putting on airs, but what many linguists prefer to call "Black English Vernacular" or "African-American Vernacular English" is a major linguistic stream that has been flowing within recognizable channels for centuries. (Benjamin Franklin and, before him, Cotton Mather left simulations in their writings of the speech of some American blacks that anticipate vernacular renderings today.) There is, of course, no single "Black English"--there are various black Englishes in Africa and the Caribbean, for instance--and Black English Vernacular is not considered a separate language by most language specialists or, for that matter, ordinary people. (As one commentator has recently noted, the complaint about rap lyrics is not that they can't be understood.) But the black American speech at issue in Oakland--however one categorizes it as a language or a dialect--not only is pervasive but also displays features that one finds nationwide, owing to its roots in the black migration from a common region, the South. There are telltale characteristics, widely if not universally present: the replacement of an initial "th" with a "d" sound ("dis," "dem") and of a medial or final "th" by an "f" or other consonant sound ("with" becomes "wif," "brother" becomes "bruvah"); a reduction of consonant clusters in general (so that "first" becomes "firs" and "hand" becomes "han"); the replacement of a final "r" sound with a vowel sound ("summah" for "summer" and "mo" for "more"); the prevalence of so-called plosive consonants (making a word such as "bill" sound more like "beel"); the placement of stress on a first, rather than a second, syllable ("DEE-troit"); the disappearance of the final "s" from third-person singular verbs ("what go 'round, come 'round"); the dropping of the copula ("I here," "the coffee cold") and of certain tense inflections altogether. The ancestry of vernacular elements such as these is diverse and includes antique forms of English and slave-trade-era maritime lingua franca, but an African origin for many of them has been persuasively argued for. West African languages, to give just one example, also tend not to make use of a "th" sound.

Second, disagree as one might with the highhanded approach taken by the Oakland Unified School District, the linguistic challenge confronting urban schools defies armchair comprehension. Discussions around the holiday dinner table in Greenwich or Grosse Pointe may characterize ebonics as an issue mainly of laziness or sloppiness--something whose rectification should be a matter merely of better habits or self-control, like standing up straight or looking another person in the eye. The front-line literature from America's classrooms belies that notion. Those interested in acquiring some (sanitized) sense of how great is the task--even in the absence of any other social problems--that faces a teacher wishing to impart mainstream speaking and writing skills to black students who don't have them might consult the soon-to-be-published English: An African-American Handbook--A Guide to the Mastery of Speaking More and Better English, by Savannah Miller Young, a black elementary-school principal in St. Louis. (The book will be available in mid-January. Address queries to P.O. Box 11704, Clayton, MO 631005-3098.) After several brief introductory chapters, the book settles into a detailed program of lessons and drills. The therapeutic lesson plan I suggest for speakers of standard American English: Imagine what would be involved in undertaking this program yourself, in reverse.

William Labov, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of an early study, The Social Stratification of English in New York (1966), has been arguing for years that, whatever its original sources, the language of poor, urban blacks is becoming ever more divergent from that of other Americans, as de facto racial segregation and social isolation become the permanent lot of a vast subgroup of African Americans. The widespread use of the so-called invariant "be" to indicate continuous or habitual action ("he be late"), for instance, is not a historical legacy but a development of the last 50 years.

"Ebonics" may not merit the status of a distinct language now, his research seems to imply--but just give it time.

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of, and a frequent contributor to, the Atlantic Monthly. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.