Ebonics: African American Vernacular English Research Paper Starter

Ebonics: African American Vernacular English

(Research Starters)

Ebonics, a word formed from "ebony" and "phonics" has become synonymous with Black English. Rather than the once-held view that Ebonics is slang or bad English, it is now acknowledged as one of many dialects of what is called Standard American English. Since Standard American English is the measure of success in the larger society, most political and educational leaders believe competence in this form of language is a worthwhile goal for speakers of the Ebonics dialect. At the same time, they believe standard language competence should not mean a rejection of the African American language and culture. Features of the Ebonics dialect are described, as is a teaching method that uses Ebonics to facilitate the learning of Standard American English, which was adopted by the Oakland, California, school district in 1996 and resulted in much media coverage and controversy. Political and educational leaders, both Caucasian and African American, hold different views on the endorsement of Ebonics.


Keywords African American Vernacular English (AAVE); Black English; Bi-Dialectic; Contrastive Analysis; Dialect; Diversity Education; Ebonics; Hegemony; Sociolinguistics; Standard American English (SAE)


Ebonics is a word formed from "ebony" and "phonics." It has its roots in West African and Niger-Congo languages and has become synonymous with Black English or African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Rather than the once-held view that Ebonics is slang or bad English, it is now considered one of many dialects of what is called Standard American English (SAE) (Debose, 2006).

A dialect is a “subgroup within a language which differs from another dialect in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Speakers of two different dialects of the same language are able to understand one another, while speakers of two different languages usually cannot” (Fox, 1997, ¶ 6). For example, an American speaking a dialect of Standard English might say "my friends and I went to a movie," while an Australian might say "my mates and I took in a cinema." The word "mates" has different meanings and is pronounced differently by an American and an Australian. Variation in vocabulary, pronunciation, and usage do not present complete barriers between the two communicators, however a phrase of similar meaning spoken in French or German would not be understood by speakers of dialects of SAE (Fox, 1997).

Ebonics as a Dialect

Perez (2000) describes phonological features of the Ebonics dialect. For example, the R, L, and T sounds may be omitted: "guard" and "car" become "god" and "cah," "tall" and "help" become "taw" and "hep," and "past" and "desk" become "pass" and "des." Sounds may also be similarly pronounced or interchanged: "this," "them," and "those" become "dis," "dem," and "doz."

Perez also describes syntactic features of the Ebonics dialect. For example, transformations may occur in verb forms: "she walks" becomes "she walk," "she is good" becomes "she good," "we were happy" becomes "we was happy." Other transformations may occur in sentence structure: "we have" becomes "us got," "we don't have any" becomes "we don't got none," "John runs" becomes "John he run," and "how did you do that" becomes "how you do that."

Perez continues to explain that although Ebonics had been accepted as a dialect of SAE beginning in the 1970s, few people had heard of it before December 18, 1996, when the Board of Education in Oakland, California, passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics as the dominant language of many students in the district. The decision raised much controversy. Many Americans, both African American and White, considered endorsement of the stigmatized, nonstandard dialect as an impediment to African American success. Others believed it should be preserved as an important part of the heritage of the African American community.

Since Standard English is the measure of success in the larger society, most political and educational leaders believe SAE competence is a worthwhile goal for speakers of the Ebonics/Black English dialect. At the same time, they believe SAE competence should not mean a rejection of the African American language and culture. Instead, SAE competence should be viewed as language expansion and enrichment, giving students the language skills to communicate with a wider community. Perez cites the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. to explain this point. Although Dr. King wrote and spoke Standard English, he also was accomplished at using dialect with his congregation and community. He may not have been so successful within both the African American and larger American community if he had been competent in only SAE or Ebonics.

The Oakland Controversy

Manzo (2002) describes a controversy that erupted after the Oakland school district adopted the Standard English Proficiency Program (SEP), “a voluntary state program that assisted teachers of children who spoke what is often called black English. The program, which was in effect until 1998, was designed to help teachers understand the rules and structure of the vernacular, show students the way it differs from Standard English,” and teach them to use one language form over the other, depending on circumstances (Manzo, 2002, ¶ 25). Because such language programs were not uncommon, particularly in urban districts, the furor that erupted in 1996 over Oakland's plan for raising student achievement was startling to many.

The resolution of the Oakland school board, “based on the recommendations of the district's African-American Task Force, quickly became a target of political leaders who argued that low expectations and ill-conceived initiatives had been short-changing black children for generations" (Manzo, 2002, ¶ 41). Manzo explains that the Oakland district became the subject of international ridicule. Black leaders and scholars — even the author Maya Angelou, who has won critical claim for books written primarily in Black English — were outraged by the measure, though it was clear later that many detractors based their opinions on the inaccurate portrayals. "The squall eventually blew over, leaving officials to smooth racial tensions and find practical ways to address students' academic needs” (Manzo, 2002).


Picower (2004) chronicles the controversy that erupted over Ebonics in Oakland in 1996. She was a teacher at a school in the Oakland district in which most educators had chosen on their own to participate in the Standard English Proficiency (SEP) initiative. This statewide project, founded in 1981, acknowledged the orderly, rule-governed nature of Ebonics and took the stance that Black English should be used to aid its speakers in learning to read and write in Standard English. The Oakland school board did not intend to alter or switch the teaching of Standard English with the teaching of Ebonics. However, it did try to take students' home dialect into account in offering them better understanding in their own dialect to master Standard English. Essentially, a misunderstanding about the program was produced by a media blitz of false information. Picower explains that her school's mission was to utilize and appreciate Ebonics, the familial language of many of the students, and to use strategies that would educate them toward a competence in Standard English. Since students came to school speaking their home language, Picower found it amusing that media coverage suggested that Oakland's intention was to teach Ebonics.

The Oakland Approach

Perez (2000) describes the instructional practices of using Ebonics to teach Standard English that were implemented as part of Oakland's SEP initiative. Teachers become familiar with the features of Ebonics and then apply teaching strategies based on the concept of using bi-dialects. With this approach, students retain their home dialect while learning and using the Standard English dialect of the larger society. The format for this instruction is based upon foreign language teaching methods and incorporates the use of contrastive analysis. Specifically, this approach compares Standard English features with those of the student's dialect and is structured so that students observe how their linguistic features differ from those of Standard English.

Teachers begin by discussing dialects and make the point that various dialects of English are different, not deficient. They discuss speech and language of radio and television broadcasters, actors in television or movie roles, and characters in books. Discussions also focus on the appropriateness of specific language or dialect in certain situations, and on the distinction between "school language" and "home/community language."

Using Contrastive Analysis

Perez (2000) describes one type of contrastive analysis technique, a word discrimination drill using Standard...

(The entire section is 3927 words.)