Ebonics: a language, dialect or slang

The real aim for this blog is to open myself up to the differing views held by specialists and non-specialists alike on the topic of Ebonics or as it is more formally known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Interestingly, it is quite common for individuals to make attitudinal judgments about speakers of different language varieties even if their views are not influenced by expert knowledge of how language works (Montgomery and Beal, 2011). Yet, their opinions should not be overlooked or disregarded because it gives us a real insight into how these presuppositions about language can impact an ‘individual’s performance of language’ (Cramer and Montgomery, 2016).

This post has been largely motivated by a discussion forum which I came across recently. The forum was titled, “Is Ebonics or Black English a bad influence for American English?”. I will share the link, but I will also make specific references to certain comments on the discussion page.

In order to read the forum please use the following hyperlink to gain access: http://www.antimoon.com/forum/2005/6925.htm

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The very first post uploaded onto the thread quotes a black American woman who despite recognising that Ebonics is ‘way of life’ dubs it as improper English. The use of social markers such ‘improper’ and ‘incorrect’ to describe Ebonics shows that this individual views Ebonics as slang or deviant system which has strayed from the norm and has real potential of polluting the standard or the ‘proper way of speaking’. It is perceptions like these which are interesting to analyse because they already show that non-linguists have this inbuilt bias that certain varieties are better or ‘more correct’ than others. This makes them more vulnerable to the myth of verbal deprivation where they start to form direct correlations between, what they perceive to be, “incorrect” language use and impairments in comprehensibility and intelligence (Labov, 1969). This first comment prompts other members to step forward to agree or disagree with the assertions that have been put forward.

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Contrarily, the second post marks a point of departure by emphasising that Black English is a fully-fledged language with its own system of rules and syntactical constructions. More importantly, the commenter shows an awareness that characterisations such as ‘an inability to conjugate’ are not only false but also demeaning and offensive. The second commenter pushes forward with the notion that linguistic systems are equal but different and attempts to move the discourse away from taking a deficit approach to non-standard varieties. This may be because she recognises that using such characterisations as ‘incorrect’ or ‘inability’ can lead to stigmatisation of certain features. This is because since these features signal group identity, negative perceptions may be extended to all members of that particular outgroup.

B84_LIThe third commenter agrees with the second post that Ebonics seems to pose no potential problems of interference in the standard variety. However, the commenter likens Ebonics to other groups who use substandard forms of English such as the ‘beatniks’ ‘zoot-suitors’ ‘surfers and valley girls’. However, this directly undermines the case of those individuals who claim that Ebonics is not a sociolect or slang, but a rule-governed language like other natural speech varieties (Ebonics Site, 2017). In fact, it is rather infuriating to compare Valspeak and surfer slang which have lost popularity over the years in southern California to a stable dialect like Ebonics – why should Ebonics be classified as a trendy lingo instead of stable linguistic system? Now, although Ebonics incorporates certain features from the African languages, speakers of Ebonics can readily communicate with speakers of standard English; therefore, Ebonics cannot be classified as a separate language (Ebonics Site, 2017). It is however, possible to rule out the use of ‘slang’ to define Ebonics because slang primarily deals with vocabulary whereas, Ebonics is not restricted to vocabulary.

Please visit the following site for more detailed information on Ebonics: https://sites.google.com/site/ebonicssite/

Cramer, J. and Montgomery, C. 2016. Cityscapes and perceptual dialectology: Global Perspectives on Non-Linguists’ Knowledge of the Dialect Landscape. De Gruyter Mouton

Labov, William. 1972. The logic of non-standard English. In Pier P. Giglioli (ed.), Language and Social Context: Selected ReadingsHarmondsworth: Penguin.

Montgomery, C. and J. Beal. 2011. Perceptual dialectology. In: W. Maguire and A. McMahon (eds.), Analysing Variation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 121-148. 

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