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American Shibboleth: Ebonics
(Released September 2000)

  by Stanley M. (Ben) Novak  


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There is a language variety called Standard American English (SAE) whose independence from Standard British English is approximately as old as that of the 13 American colonies from Britain.1 SAE is the medium in which most public communication in the U.S. occurs; it is the formalized, standardized language in which we are educated, informed, entertained, and governed. Proficiency in this standard dialect of English in the U.S. provides access to the "Land of Opportunity" through better grades, better pay, and better status.

First contact with a college or an employer is usually in writing, sometimes by phone or in person, but always via language, and the medium is a message in itself. Knowing what to say is only half the battle; knowing how to say it is as important a factor in getting into that college, being hired for that job, or receiving that loan. It often takes only a single oddity in grammar, word usage, or spelling to relegate an application to the reject stack, and the effects are cumulative; each opportunity lost puts that person farther behind his/her peers in educational credentials, career advancement, and credit history.

All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others (George Orwell)

There are nonstandard dialects of English distributed by region, ethnicity and social class that are used for everyday communication in informal contexts and referred to as colloquial or vernacular language. These language varieties are often shibboleths,2 in that they simultaneously unite members of a community around their unique characteristics and differentiate members of separate communities, and in that they are simultaneously symbols of alienness subject to misinterpretation/stereotyping by outsiders3 and symbols of pride in a shared cultural identity by insiders.4 Like the Biblical shibboleth whose pronunciation determined whether one would be allowed to pass unharmed, language can open—or close—literal and metaphorical doors in American society. Humans are extremely social animals, and social interaction is primarily communicative; how we (mis)communicate determines in large part how we are judged, individually or collectively, as (un)intelligible, (un)intelligent, (un)educable, (un)educated, (un)personable, (un)persons. In the information age, with such technologies as voice- and handwriting-recognition systems, (un)intelligibility can determine literally whether the door will open, the money will be transferred, or the person will be recognized.

The language variety distinctive of African Americans is nearly as old as Standard American English,5 but it has often been misinterpreted as defective, has never been standardized, and has always had lower status compared to SAE.6 Most linguists and educators agree that proficiency in SAE strongly influences success in education and employment in the U.S., and most recognize the importance of the home language for literacy acquisition and for learning in general, but there is considerable disagreement on how and when to transition from the home language to the standard language, and in practice this transitioning methodology has been extended only to immigrant populations.7

That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet (William Shakespeare)

Prior to the 1950s, the common term for African Americans was Negro, and the language varieties spoken by this group were referred to as Negro English. When Black became the more accepted term for African Americans in the 1950s, the language terms shifted in kind, resulting in the more technical Black English Vernacular (BEV) as coined by William Labov in 19728 and the more popular Black English. From the 1960s to the present, African American has increasingly become a more acceptable term than Black, and the corresponding name for the language variety used by African Americans is thus African American English (AAE) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE).9 Currently, Black English remains the more common and popular term for this language variety, whereas African American Vernacular English is the term preferred by most linguists, referring generally to the varieties of English spoken by most African Americans in informal contexts.10

Ebonics, a more recent and more controversial neologism, was coined by Robert L. Williams during a 1973 conference in St. Louis, Missouri, "Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child." It is a blend of ebony (a synonym for black that lacks its pejorative connotations) and phonics (pertaining to speech sounds) and by definition refers specifically to an African-language-based creole (from an earlier pidgin) that has been relexified by borrowing from English, resulting in what African Americans now speak in the U.S.11 Many therefore consider Ebonics to refer to a language that is distinct from the dialect referred to by such terms as Black English.12

Harmony seldom makes a headline (Silas Bent)

Ebonics became a household word in the U.S. and in the world on December 18, 1996, when the School Board of the Oakland, California, Unified School District (OUSD) passed what is known as the "Ebonics Resolution." In its original form, the resolution's most controversial positions—those that aroused the greatest public hostility—can be paraphrased as follows:

  1. The language patterns of African American students are genetically based, do not constitute a dialect of English, and originated in West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems.
  2. These language patterns should be officially recognized as the primary language of African American students, who should have access to the same types of programs and funding that are available to other students whose primary language is not English.
  3. An academic program should be designed and implemented to instruct African American students in their primary language and facilitate the acquisition and mastery of SAE. 13
The resolution was a response to the report of the Task Force on the Education of African-American Students and to the continuing failure of existing strategies to alleviate educational problems for African Americans.14 African Americans constituted 53% of OUSD's enrollment; disproportionately, they accounted for 71% of the students enrolled in Special Education or Learning Disabilities-type classes, but only 37% of those enrolled in Gifted/Talented Education classes. African Americans constituted 64% of those students repeating a grade, 67% of those classified as truant, and 80% of those suspended from school. Only 71% of African-American males attended school on a regular basis, and 19% of 12th-grade African Americans did not graduate. African Americans had an average 1.8 GPA on a 4.0 scale, the lowest of all ethnic and racial groups in the district.15

Clearly, the educational system here was failing to properly educate this group of students, and, clearly, something had to be done. OUSD's declaration of linguistic independence for Ebonics, while possibly ill advised, was at least a recognition that learning is mediated by language. Whether the class is language arts or mathematics, the teacher and the students must be able to communicate for learning to occur, and the board had determined that communication, or lack of it, was a major source of the problems for African American students in the district. The solution implied in the original resolution was to apply an existing program with existing funding sources to the problem: mother-tongue-medium bilingual education. Bilingual education was already established, successful, and federally funded for limited English proficiency Latino and Asian students under Title I and Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The reactions of theoretical and applied linguists were generally favorable to the Ebonics Resolution, and many made their support known to the general public through the mass media. In fact, both the Linguistic Society of America (LSA)16 and the Board of Directors of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)17 made official statements of support for the Ebonics Resolution. Most attempted to reassure the public that Black English is a valid and rule-governed variety of English, that recognizing this would not lower educational standards, and that moving its speakers toward SAE is a legitimate goal that does not demean AAVE.

Public reaction to this resolution was, in a word, explosive. The mass media were immediately flooded with various conflicting facts and opinions on what rapidly became a nationwide controversy in nearly every public forum, from the newspapers to the radio to the Internet. Only a day after this local resolution was made public it was being reported worldwide on television. The debate spread from state to state, and quickly reached the federal government. Less than a week after the passage of the Ebonics Resolution, the U.S. Government replied to the Oakland School Board and to the nation: U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley ruled that Ebonics is not a language and therefore is ineligible for federal bilingual education funding.18

African-American political leader Reverend Jesse Jackson, who initially came out against the Ebonics Resolution as an attempt to teach slang as a second language,19 met with Oakland School Board leaders at the end of December 1996 and was reassured that the intention of the resolution was to teach SAE, not Ebonics, and that Ebonics was to be considered a "language pattern," not a separate language; he then called on the Department of Education to fund the Oakland proposal.20

The OUSD School Board reconvened to assuage mounting public hostility to the Ebonics Resolution, and after a 3-hour debate, unanimously passed an Amended Resolution on January 15, 1997, that altered the wording to eliminate the most controversial implications of the original resolution: that Ebonics is an independent language, that Ebonics is the primary language of African American students, that Ebonics is genetically based, and that classroom instruction should be provided in Ebonics.21 The revised resolution was claimed to actually promote the Standard English Proficiency (SEP) Program, a 20-year-old program already in use and often federally funded, which uses contrastive analysis and foreign-language teaching methodology to move students from nonstandard to Standard English.

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter presided at hearings with the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education on January 23, 1997, to examine the proper role of the federal government in assisting students to improve their English-language skills, with focus on the proposed use of Ebonics. Among those who testified were OUSD Superintendent Carolyn M. Getridge, Oakland high-school senior Michael Lampkins, classroom teacher Toni Cook (the Oakland Board of Education Trustee who had originally promoted the Ebonics Resolution to the board22), California Representative Maxine Waters, and a number of linguists, including William Labov, Orlando Taylor, Robert L. Williams, and Michael Casserly. Other linguists, including John R. Rickford, submitted letters to be read into the Senate record. At the end of the 2-hour hearings, Senator Specter, noting the complexity of the issues, was not ready to make a judgment on what role federal education funding should play in such programs as suggested in the Ebonics Resolution.

This is the way the world ends—not with a bang, but a whimper (T. S. Eliot)

The term Ebonics was completely removed from the third and final modification of the resolution, belatedly released by the Oakland School Board in May 1997. Intended to calm public opinion, this move signaled surrender in the debate on the language status of Ebonics, though OUSD remained committed to the SEP program.

Anti-Ebonics sentiment strengthened, and legislation was introduced at state and federal levels to block funding to any educational programs legitimizing language varieties other than SAE.23 In spring 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227 requiring that all non-English and limited-English-proficient students be given one year of intensive English instruction and then mainstreamed into regular classrooms. 24 This effectively put an end not only to Ebonics but also to bilingual education in general.25

As informal debate spread from the breakfast table to the break room, so many jokes began circulating, some patently racist, that eventually, in July 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled them a form of workplace harassment.26

Debate on Ebonics fell silent. But the problem does not stop with the defeat of the Ebonics Resolution, because it did not start there. This has been an ongoing public policy issue since the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, at which point African Americans, now recognized as U.S. citizens rather than chattel, had to be educated like any other citizen (though it has been a long and tortuous battle to put that into practice). As of this writing, though not making headlines, the issues raised by the Ebonics Resolution remain unresolved and will not go away until the academic achievement of African Americans is on a par with that of the rest of the population.

History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other alternatives (Abba Eban)

There have been numerous proposals and controversies in the past, under various names and with various agendas, all attempting to address the ongoing and seemingly insurmountable problem of educating our African American children. Oakland's proposal was just one in a long line of such efforts.

A reading curriculum called Bridge, originally developed by Gary Simpkins, Grace Holt, and Charletta Simpkins in the 1970s, and based on contrastive readings and exercises in the language and culture of AAVE and SAE, has been implemented in various schools and has been shown to improve reading levels.27

In 1977, parents of students at Martin Luther King Elementary School successfully sued the Ann Arbor, Michigan, School District (Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor Board of Education) for failing to teach the children to read. This failure was traced to inadequate recognition of the children's language; ie, it was a failure to recognize the distinctness and legitimacy of AAVE as a second language that posed a barrier to learning.28

Another program called "Bidialectal Communication" has been in operation for over a decade in the Dekalb County, Georgia, School District. This program teaches fifth- and sixth-grade students to switch from their "home speech" to "school speech."29 The program, designed by Kelly Harris-Wright (the current program director), has demonstrated rising test scores in reading and language arts and is supported by federal Title I funds for low-income areas. Many African Americans use AAVE with friends and relatives and then code-switch seamlessly to SAE at work or in school; this allows them to maintain their own specific linguistic and cultural heritage while still participating and succeeding in the more generally shared American linguistic and cultural milieu. The Bidialectal Communication program takes advantage of a common linguistic survival tactic for speakers of minority languages or dialects, one that would undoubtedly have been included in the implementation of the Ebonics Resolution, by legitimizing and facilitating this code-switching.

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies (Friedrich Nietzsche)

The argument that AAVE is a legitimate language variety rather than a deficient form of English is certainly not new and is backed up by extensive linguistic research on every facet of AAVE. It has often been characterized as the most extensively studied of all varieties of English, a claim supported by a search of the CSA Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts database, which finds nearly 400 publications on this variety in the last 3 decades. Two recent examples are Geneva Smitherman's AAVE dictionary30 and Salikoko S. Mufwene's survey of Africanisms in AAVE.31

Linguists generally shy away from making value judgments, as linguistics is a descriptive, not a prescriptive, science; however, it should be noted that language users do make such judgments regularly, and English speakers have a long history of evaluating the relative merits of various styles and usages. 32 For example, we have unconsciously inherited the language attitudes of the Norman French speakers who once dominated Anglo-Saxon England, so that we continue to consider Anglo-Saxon words to be more vulgar than French or Latin words; consider the fact that fart (from Old English feortan) is less acceptable than flatulence (ultimately from Latin flatus) even though originally they were each perfectly acceptable to their separate speech communities, and even though they refer to the same thing.

Linguists are also generally in agreement that the terms for African Americans' language variety already in use are sufficient (Black English for the general public, and AAVE for the linguists), but that groups have a legitimate claim to naming themselves. It is interesting to note that black, an Anglo-Saxon word (from Old English blaec), has been replaced in Ebonics by a derivation from ebony, a Latin word (from Latin ebeninus) because it has fewer negative connotations—an unintentional continuation of the prejudice against Anglo-Saxon words.

Any one of the currently competing terms is a cover term for a heterogeneous group of language varieties constituting the home language of African Americans, some barely distinguishable from SAE, some barely intelligible to SAE speakers, but all sharing a core group of similar characteristics. The debate about AAVE's origin as a dialect of English or as an African-language-based creole is not in any way a new topic. From the creolist perspective, AAVE originates in a contact language with an African-language-based grammar and an English-based vocabulary. From the dialectal perspective, AAVE is originally a form of the Southern dialect of American English, which diverged due to slavery and social isolation.

Linguists are rather uncomfortable with defining the difference between a dialect and a language; it is a common rule of thumb in linguistic circles to use the following criterion (and only half-jokingly): "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." 33 The fact is that there are no empirical criteria that are generally accepted for defining the difference between a language and a dialect.34 Calling a speech variety a dialect or a language neither increases nor decreases its legitimacy, and this part of the controversy was much ado about nothing. Linguists do not use the term dialect in any pejorative sense; whether AAVE is considered a dialect or a language, linguists still consider it a systematic, rule-governed means of communication. It is important to remember that SAE is itself simply a dialect: the standard dialect of American English.

On the other hand, AAVE is also not a standardized medium of communication, and thus is unsuitable in many ways as a medium of wider communication. AAVE is defined as nonstandard partly because it varies so greatly. 35 These variations are determined by region, age, gender, education, social class, and context, just as for any other language. AAVE is also defined as nonstandard partly because it has not been subjected to the process of language standardization. The recognized model of SAE that appears, for instance, in school textbooks, is actually the home language of a small minority; most Americans speak a dialect of English that deviates more or less from this standard. This is true because standard dialects are artificial constructs, the result of long planning and compromise to establish an agreed upon language system that, while intended to be generally representative of the language system shared by all, usually does not directly reflect the language spoken by any particular group.

Another issue that drew fire from both the general public and the linguistic experts was the implication in the original Ebonics Resolution that the language patterns of African American students are inherited with their DNA. From one linguistic perspective, all languages are genetically inherited in the biological sense, in that normally developing humans are innately predisposed to learn language. Noam Chomsky's "language acquisition device"36 and Derek Bickerton's "bioprogram hypothesis"37 are the closest most linguists would come to agreeing that AAVE, or any language, has any biologically genetic component. It is important to note, however, that no specific language is genetically programmed; genetically Asian children raised in Europe have no trouble acquiring European languages, genetically European children raised in Asia have no trouble acquiring Asian languages, and there is no inherited predisposition among blacks to speak AAVE. The authors of the Ebonics Resolution were apparently attempting to use "genetic" in the linguistic sense rather than the biological sense; ie, the intent was to address the origin of AAVE, specifically as to whether SAE and AAVE are descended from a common ancestral language and AAVE is therefore a dialect of English, or whether AAVE is descended from an African language and therefore a separate language.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. (H. L. Mencken)

The most intractable part of the Ebonics controversy is a very old problem: the status of African Americans as "Americans."

The fact that AAVE varies so greatly makes it difficult to develop a coherent state- or national-level educational policy for using it in the classroom as a way to move toward SAE. So long as the implementation is local, as in the Oakland Unified School District, the variety of AAVE in question is probably fairly homogeneous; when this is proposed for the state or national level, we run into the problem of identifying precisely what is meant by AAVE. This problem is avoided somewhat by addressing the issue more generically (though possibly less effectively) simply as "home language." If in practice the policy were directed generally at all home languages, the special needs of AAVE speakers would go unaddressed. If, however, the policy were expanded to a national educational policy directed at AAVE, there would be strong pressure to identify or develop a standard version of AAVE in order to properly implement it, which would continue to neglect those who do not speak this new standard, and, worse, would result in the need for African Americans to learn two standards, again disadvantaging them in comparison to European Americans, who need learn only a single standard.

The notion of recognizing the validity and systematicity of the home language is legitimate, but in practice, the use of contrastive analysis, as in SEP programs, ends up sending exactly the message that the resolution was intended to eliminate; if the student's home language is allowed in the classroom and then systematically "corrected" (translated?) by the teacher to SAE, then no matter what the terminology or methodology used, there is the implication that what is being corrected is an error, ergo, the home language is in error. In this way, the resolution could result in even greater stigmatization of AAVE than already exists.

The proposal to use foreign-language/bilingual education methodology to move from one language system to another has an inherent logic to it, in that there are systematic differences between AAVE and SAE just as there are systematic differences between French and SAE, and in that the necessary methodology and materials have already been developed and tested. However, the message sent here in practice would be one that is not consistent with the intent of the Ebonics Resolution. By classifying African Americans among immigrant populations, the implication is that, like immigrants, they remain outsiders until they assimilate themselves to another language and culture. In effect, there is an insinuation that African Americans do not gain full citizenship by birth as do European Americans, but must (re)earn it by assimilating to American culture, which by implication is a culture that is not their own. In this way, the resolution could actually exacerbate problems caused in the past by race-based exclusionary practices.

Raising the status of the home language of African Americans is controversial even among those whose sociopolitical goals are one and the same; namely, providing equal opportunities for employment and education to a minority group that has historically received far less than its fair share of the American Dream. This issue remains so contentious because nobody can agree on whether encouraging the use of their language variety would, in practice, constitute a divide-and-conquer or a unite-and-empower strategy toward African Americans. Thus, the U.S. continues to grapple with two worthy but often contradictory ideologies: the struggle for integration and the celebration of diversity. In the end, little was clarified or changed by the Ebonics Resolution or the national debates surrounding it, but the fact that African Americans continue to underachieve in the U.S. educational system virtually guarantees another airing of the matter.

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