There’s More to Ebonics than Meets the Ear
“Ebonics is the official language of the undefined of Black Culture; the Native Tongue to the underrepresented Black American.” These words, taken from a poet named Steven Willis, paint a perfect picture about how important Ebonics is. Simply put, when discussing the topic of Ebonics, it’s important for one to recognize the vital role it plays in African-American history, literature, education, social life and all-around culture. Many famous authors have even used Ebonics in their art, including James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and August Wilson.
The term “Ebonics” (also known as African-American English, African-American Vernacular or Black Speech) was created in the 1970s by black scholars. In the book “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks” Robert Williams says, “A two-year-old term created by a group of black scholars, Ebonics may be defined as "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of African origin. It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, idiolects, and social dialects of black people" especially those who have adapted to colonial circumstances. Ebonics derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness.”
Interestingly enough, many linguistics scholars have concluded that Ebonics fits the criteria of a dialect (while not mistaking it for slang), based on the consistent grammatical rules it holds. These rules do not waver based off of environment, gender or era. This should encourage us to stamp out the notion of assuming the level of intelligence that African-Americans have by solely comparing their use Ebonics to American Standard English.
Devaluing a dialect like Ebonics can result in individuals racially stigmatizing the academic achievement of a certain group. I wrestle with this notion simply because in my circle of friends alone, our academic achievement ranges from high school degrees to PhDs, while still speaking Ebonics on a daily basis. In no way am I suggesting that we should choose Ebonics over American English. American English is the language of this country and it is tremendously important to learn it. However, I would suggest that we step away from labeling the use of Ebonics (or any dialect for that matter) as a measuring tool for a person’s education, especially if they are speaking the dialect amongst their peers, family, and/or anyone who is in their community or environment. If we are attempting to discover the academic achievements for any ethnic or racial group in America, focusing solely on the use of their dialect can be a faulty approach.
My experience has been familiar for many black Americans. Throughout my senior year in high school, there were a few cases where people automatically assumed that I was uneducated because I talked “black.” I think there are many cases when a dominant ideology gets looked upon as the only one acceptable in any specific environment. I remember the look on others’ faces when they realized that I was enrolled in courses such as Calculus and AP Chemistry. The more they got to know me, the more I heard comments like, “We didn’t expect him to be like this!” Well, what exactly does this mean? Prior to seeing how intelligent I was, these people postulated a conclusion solely on how I interacted with my friends, from my use of Ebonics.
This placed me in a weird place as a kid. Should I speak “two languages” depending on who I’m talking to? My friends who don’t speak Ebonics encouraged me to stop speaking “black” because it makes me sound uneducated, failing to realize the linguistic patterns that it carries. So I had to ask myself the question, will I only be accepted as “educated” by my friends when I stop speaking Ebonics? Do I have to talk like how they talk in order to be accepted? Something felt wrong about that idea.
Simply put, a dialect should never dictate nor determine the level of intelligence that a person has. Since America is such a diverse nation, it’s important for us to remain open-minded when learning about certain cultural qualities’ significance to ethnic groups, as well as the cultural significance of such peoples’ dialects.