What is Ebonics?

In 1975, Robert L. Williams wrote a book called "Ebonics: The true language of Black Folks" in which he coined the term Ebonics. Although the book is the first time the phrase was published, it was coined two years earlier at a conference whose "proceedings were published in the book."(http://www-leland.stanford.edu/~rickford/ebonics/) According to Mr. Williams, the definition of Ebonics is:

...the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represents the communicative compentencee of the West African, Caribbean, and United States idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social forces of black people...Ebonics derives its form from ebony(black) and phonics(sound, study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness.

The more formal name for Ebonics is African American Vernacular English(AAVE). Supporters of AAVE claim that it has specific grammatical linguistic rules and is not a careless, lazy language where anything goes.(Leslie’s Ebonics Resources http://members.aol.com/LKFrieden/ebonics.html) In fact, it is a combination of African Languages and standard English. It combines the formal rules of the African languages of Ibo, Yoruba, Ewe, Tula, Mandinke, Wolof, and Mende to American English.

Examples of Ebonics
(taken from www-leland.stanford.edu/~rickford/ebonics)

  1. "She BIN had dat han’-made dress" (SE=She’s had that hand-made dress for a long time, and still does.)
  2. "Ah ‘on know what homey be doin." (SE=I don’t know what my friend is usually doing.)
  3. "I ask Ruf could she bring it ovah to Tom crib."(SE=I asked Ruth if/whether she could bring it over to Tom’s place.)

Some specific rules of Ebonics or AAVE(African American Vernacular English) are the double negative or negative inversion. Although the examples above do not have a double negative, this occurs when two words in the same sentence are negative(Nobody can’t go out tonight.) It is usually thought that two negatives make a positive and is an error in the Standard English grammar world. Another rule of AAVE is the negative inversion. This includes the inversion of "Nobody can’t," so it would be "Can’t nobody." This inversion can only be done if the latter is a question.

Ebonics, differs grammatically from other forms of English. Labov, in 1982, summarized the major points of AAVE. First, it is a distinct "subsystem" of English with "phonological and syntactic rules" that correspond to rules of other dialects. Also, current forms of shows evidence of Creole close to Caribbean Creole. AAVE has a much developed way in which verbs indicate notions of time. For instance, it reflects whether activities are finished or in progress.

Some pronunciations are interesting to look at as well. First, "th" is sometimes pronounced as "de." This is consistent with the French language which does not pronounce the "th" sound and instead says "t". AAVE also pronounces "th" as voiceless "t" or voiced "v"(bruvvah.) AAVE often does not use "consonant clusters." As in the example above, a person speaking Ebonics drops the ‘ts’ in tests to get "tesses." Another important rule of Ebonics is concerning the verb "to be." Often used in the tense "bin," as used in example number one, means that the action is still going happening. For instance, "She bin married" in Ebonics would be "She is still married." Many who speak standard English would think that it meant that "she" was married, but no longer is. For more rules and grammar technicalities, see Leslie’s Ebonics Resource (http://members.aol.com/LKFrieden/ebonics.html) or Leila Monaghan’s complilation of the "Views of linguists and anthropologists on the Ebonics issue." (www.standford.edu/~rickford/ebonics/linganthro1.html)