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89 "ebonics" (Word origins - alt.usage.english)


This article is from the alt.usage.english FAQ, by Mark Israel misrael@scripps.edu with numerous contributions by others.

89 "ebonics" (Word origins - alt.usage.english)

This recently popular term for what linguists usually call
BEV (Black English Vernacular) or AAEV (African-American English
vernacular), or BVE or AAVE, was devised in 1973 by Robert Lewis
Williams (born in 1903), a retired professor of linguistics at
Washington University; he expanded on it in his 1975 book "Ebonics:
the True Language of Black Folks" (published by the Institute of
Black Studies in St. Louis).

The term came to wide attention when on 18 December 1996 the
Oakland, California, school board unanimously voted to recognise
Ebonics as a second language and to alter educational procedures
to account for the difference between English taught in schools and
the "primary language" of many of the district's students. The text
of the resolution can be found at
<http://www.west.net/~joyland/Oakland.htm>. Backlash to the Oakland
School Board's decision prompted an amended resolution
on 15 January 1997, explaining that the board instructed teachers to
accept Ebonics as a primary language and facilitate the transition
to standard English, not to teach Ebonics in classrooms.

The most distinctive characteristics of Ebonics are not
conjugating the verb "to be" and dropping final consonant sounds,
but there are of course many other differences from standard
English. Ebonics can make some distinctions that standard English
cannot, for example, the use of "be" to signify habitual action:
"He be sick" means that he is chronically ill, whereas "He sick"
means that he is ill at present. The corresponding negative forms
are "He don' be sick" and "he ain' sick"; the interrogative forms
are "Do he be sick?" and "Is he sick?" "He be sick right now" and
"He sick all the time" would be ungrammatical. Some of the
grammatical features are listed at
<http://www.west.net/~joyland/BlkEng.html>. There are also
semantic differences; for example, Ebonics shares with U.S. Southern
English "carry" in the sense "to escort"; the sentence "I'm going to
take you, but I'm not going to carry you" would in Ebonics be "I
gonna carry you, but I ain' gonna tote you."

A resolution on Ebonics adopted by the Linguistic Soceity of
America can be found at
<http://www.lsa.umich.edu/ling/jlawler/ebonics.lsa.html>. There is
a bibliography at
<http://www.english.uiuc.edu/English302/aavedesc.htm>. A forthcoming
book is "The Ebonics Controversy : Exploring the Roots of an
African-American Dialect" (Birch Lane Press, 1997, ISBN


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