We loves it when you be smilin’!

Ebonics Grammar

Seminar Paper 2009 11 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies



1 Introduction

2 What is Ebonics anyway?

3 Where does it come from?

4 Language or dialect

5 Phonology
5.1 …and how does it sound?
5.2 The consonant system
5.2.1 The r
5.2.2 Reduction of word-final clusters
5.2.3 Reductions on consonant combinations in the middle of words
5.2.4 Auxiliaries
5.2.5 The dental fricatives
5.2.6 The lateral
5.3 The vowel system
5.3.1 Monophtongization
5.3.2. Vowel shift
5.3.3 Nasals

6 Grammar
6.1 The use of to be and its forms
6.2 Tense peculiarities
6.2.1 A note about done

7 Epilogue

8 References

1 Introduction

Ebonics is probably the most popular and widespread linguistic phenomena in the world today. This is mainly due to the fact that American music is a worldwide predominant cultural reality. Black American music with its inherent linguistic characteristics, by the same token, looms large within that heritage. In this paper I will commence with a description of the term “Ebonics” and some information on the scientific state of affairs concerning its origins. Then I will proceed to some phonological aspects and conclude with a short look at its grammatical structure and idiosyncrasies.

2 What is Ebonics anyway?

African-American English, the linguistic variety spoken by many African Americans in the United States of America, is a system with specific rules for combining sounds to form words, phrases and sentences. The first researchers who took an interest in this called it “Non-Standard Negro English”, “Negro dialect” or “American Negro speech”. However, because of the growing objections to the term Negro, other terms had to be found – parallel to the changes – in referring to black people. But even though the terms “African-American Vernacular English” (AAVE), “Black communications”, Black dialect”, “Black English”, “Black Vernacular English”, “African American language”, “African American English” and, as Stanford Afro-American Linguist John Baugh named it, “Black Street Speech” (Baugh, 1983: 11), have all been used to label this variety over the past forty years, the word “Ebonics” (a blend of ebony and phonetics that was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars) is probably the most popular one today. This essay is to be understood as a brief survey on its grammatical and linguistic features.

3 Where does it come from?

There are two theories that loom large in the discussion about the origins of AAVE. The more recent one, called the “dialectal hypothesis” or “divergence issue” as it was coined by the founding father of American sociolinguistics, William Labov, in 1983 (Rickford, 1998) asserts that Ebonics is a dialect of English, which evolved, as all dialects do, through a history of social and geographic separation of its speakers from speakers of other varieties of English. The older one, called the “Creole hypothesis”, suggests that Ebonics evolved out of a pidgin language that developed in West Africa as a result of the slave trade and commercial trade between Africans and Europeans during the 16th-19th centuries. This theory is ,according to John Rickford, “the better investigated one and the one which continues to inspire more controversy and new research” (Rickford, 1998: 155) and says that the pidgin language which is “restricted in social role, used for limited communication” (ibid.), grew into a full-fledged language (a full language that develops from a pidgin is called a Creole language) used by slaves, who, because of deliberate mixing of Africans from different tribes in the slave trade, did not share a common language. These theories are not mutually exclusive but obviously contain both elements of truth. Establishing the history of any language system (but especially one that has not been written down) is complex and detailed work, and linguists are still working on the origins of Ebonics. It is, however, well-established that (1) Ebonics has some features, like copula absence (Rickford, 1998), that are also found in West African languages, (2) some American English words (e.g. tote, yam and others) may well be borrowings from African languages, (3) Ebonics shares many features with many dialects of English and (4) the evolution of Ebonics since the end of the slave trade and the migration of many southern Blacks to the north shows that developments typical of dialect divergence are taking place (Smitherman, 1998).

4 Language or dialect

On December 18, 1996, the Board of Education of Oakland, California, passed a resolution concerning "Ebonics" or what used to be called Black English and stated that “there are numerous validated scholarly studies that demonstrate that Afro Americans, as part of their culture and history as African people, possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly approaches as “Ebonics” (literally black sounds)” (Ramirez et al., 2005: 115). The move was lambasted by critics and initiated a nationwide discourse. From a linguistic perspective, there is obviously no conclusive way to resolve the difference between what is considered languages and what is considered dialects. Californian Professor of Language Policy, Terrence G. Wiley, therefore suggests avoiding the issue by referring to both as “varieties” of language (cf. ibid. 3). To the author of this essay, this is a wise policy and gives him a reason to delve further into the characteristics of this variety.



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Institution / College
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen – Department of English
15 Punkte
Ebonics TEFL Grammar



Title: We loves it when you be smilin’!