Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Ebonics (a portmanteau of ebony and phonics) is a colloquial term for African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Though coined at a 1973 conference on AAVE, the term was not widely known until the late 1990s when it became a controversial topic in the United States, mainly over its linguistic status.
Proponents of various bills across the country, most famously in a resolution from the Oakland, California school board on December 18 1996, desired to have Ebonics officially declared a language or dialect. (The Oakland resolution was passed unanimously by a lame-duck board in its last meeting before the installation of new members with different political views; the new board modified the resolution and then effectively dropped it.) Doing so would affect funding- and education-related issues. Other opinions on Ebonics range at the extremes from its deserving official language status in the United States, to its being dismissed as "bad English".
One of the confusing points in the controversy was that the Oakland resolution not only denied that Ebonics was English, but asserted that the speech of African-American children belonged to "West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems".
Proponents of Ebonics-education believe that their proposals have been seriously misunderstood by the general public. The belief underlying Ebonics education is that African-American students would perform better in school and more easily learn standard American English, if textbooks and teachers acknowledged AAVE was not a substandard version of standard American English but rather a speech variety with as much structure, different though it is, as standard American English.
It is unclear if any proposal of the time suggested actually teaching AAVE or treating it as socially prestigious as standard American English. Doing some teaching in Ebonics, however, was mandated by the Oakland resolution in two places; e.g., "imparting instruction to African-American students in their primary language" (where the specific claim had been made that the primary language was Ebonics). Rather, teachers were encouraged to accept that the errors in standard American English that their students made were not the result of lack of intelligence or lack of effort, but rather because the language that they normally use is grammatically different from that of SAE. Instead of teaching standard English not by proscribing non-standard characteristics, the idea was that standard English could be taught by showing students how to translate expressions from AAVE to standard American English.
At the very least, supporters of the Oakland proposal hoped to increase understanding among teachers about the source of SAE errors by their students, and to have teachers understand that while the speech of their students is socially non-standard, it is not linguistically inferior or less complex than standard English. For example, it showed that the dropping of the final -d or -t from past participles was not, as many educators had believed, a sign that black English avoided the simple perfect (since speakers of AAVE use irregular preterites appropriately).
Ebonics recently resurfaced in American popular culture, for a moment at least, when the term was the question to an answer on the American quiz show Jeopardy!. Contestant Ken Jennings, whose run on the show broke records, when presented with the answer "It's a colloquial term for Black English", replied "What be Ebonics?" This event caused little controversy, however.
- African American Vernacular English, for a discussion of the dialect's linguistic characteristics
- Languages in the United States
- Find the Experts, the Linguists who know the most about this topic.
- full text of the Oakland resolution
- a later, revised resolution from Oakland clarifying the school board's position
- a resolution from the Linguistic Society of America in support of the Oakland school board's decision
- Opening Pandora's Box—Toni Cook interview that clarifies the intent of the Oakland resolution
- 1999 essay in The African-Americanist University of Missouri
- The Ebonics resolution Critique of the Oakland resolution (with annotated text) and of most of its critics
- Da Ebonics Page English to Ebonics translator, etc.
- Ebonics Notes and Discussion History and coinage of "Ebonics".
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