Department of English

Fall 2006 Edition

Research Paper: Ebonics

Crystal K. Call
Expository 1010 2nd Place
Professor: Toa Tawa

“Ah 'on know what homey be doin'.”

“Can't nobody tink de way he do.”  

“Do ya dig' how ta speak Ebonics?”

Does this look like a different language to you?  Could you read it aloud without
struggling with the words?  Does it sound like a sophisticated, organized language in your opinion? 

On December 18, 1996, a bill was passed by the Oakland Unified School District's Board of Education that officially declared Ebonics a language. The circumstances that surround this decision had to do with the language children were speaking in school and how the African-American students were struggling more because they could not understand the English taught in classrooms. Despite opposition, the Oakland, California school board was justified in its decision to declare Ebonics a language because of the benefits that came from it. 

The resolution was met with uproar as the public misunderstood the conditions
involved.  Hermene Hartman, the African-American editor-in-chief and publisher of N'DIGO, a black-owned Chicago publication, wrote:

Ebonics is clearly a step backwards. . . Want to hear the doctor tell you in Ebonics what the cure is for those pains in your chest? Why not also resurrect the images of Amos & Andy, Stepin Fetchit, Mammy, Little Black Sambo, The Minstrel, rolling dark eyes dancing the instant jig, and the cotton fields where we were 100 percent employed, well-fed and happy. (Muwakkil)

The biggest misunderstanding on the issue was that the Oakland school board was going to be teaching the students Ebonics as a substitute for standard English. When indeed, the school’s intentions were to teach the administrators the different patterns in Ebonics so that they could better communicate with the students in their teaching of understandable English.

Educators, journalists, politicians and even civil rights leaders, however, have
questioned the resolution, time and time again. Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman and University of California regent said on the matter, “I think it’s tragic. These are kids [who] have gotten themselves into this trap of speaking this language-this slang, really-that people can't understand. Now we're going to legitimize it." Civil rights leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, called the action “an unacceptable surrender bordering disgrace” and claimed that, by teaching Ebonics, they would be teaching down to the black children, and that should never happen. Even the Clinton Administration announced that no federal money would be available to fund classroom instruction for Ebonics. "Elevating Black English to the status of a language is not the way to raise standards of achievement in our schools," said Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

The real question is why Ebonics should be declared a language in the first place.  When looking at the statistics of failing African-American students in the Oakland area, it is not surprising that they needed to do something:

African-Americans, who comprise 53 percent of the district's student population, make up 71 percent of the special-education students, 67 percent of the truants and 80 percent of those suspended. African-American students have an average grade-point average of 1.8 on a 4-point scale--the lowest of all students in the district.” (Muwakkil) 

Stanford linguistics professor, John Rickford, said that, despite what people think personally of Oakland’s decision, it is obvious that the existing, traditional methods are not working and that students in Oakland are getting progressively worse in the language arts areas.

So why is language such a big deal in the world anyway?  Are we really judged immediately by what comes out of our mouths?  Dr. Orlando Taylor, a published linguist and speech-language specialist, wrote:

Language is a reflection of a people. For example, French culture is perceived as high quality. Its cuisine is considered to be great. Its fashions are considered to be avant-garde, so if a person speaks with a French accent, it's perceived to be very positive because the people are perceived positively. But if a group is considered to be ignorant, primitive, backward, ill-informed, then their language is given similar attributes. The problem is that African-American people and Black people around the world are perceived by dominant societies to be inferior, and so their language is perceived in a similar way.

Linguist Dennis Baron maintains that "Aside from a person's physical appearance, the first thing someone will be judged by is how he or she talks."

It is often hard to understand the way people talk and not just in the case of Ebonics.  Across the continent people have begun to adopt different accents and styles of  speaking. In the film, “American Tongues,” a reporter travels around the United States, interviewing as he goes. He goes from state to state just talking to people and learning how they talk. The Pennsylvania Dutch are a great example of people who speak a little differently. Their accents sound Scandinavian, although they were born and raised in the United States. Another example is a group of four people, all from similar parts of New York, who have such different accents that it is hard to understand what they are saying.

I believe that it is very important to be understood in this world.  It’s hard enough to repeat yourself because you mispronounced one word, but to do that with an entire conversation would be even more difficult. Southern Utah University English professor, Toa Tawa, who is originally from New Zealand, had an experience with a woman from Parowan, Utah.  During their conversation, the woman mentioned that she needed to move her “harses to the croul.”  Tawa was confused at what this woman was talking about, and it took him several long moments of thought to realize the woman was talking about taking her “horses to the corral.”  It’s amazing the influence language has on each and every one of us.

I believe that Oakland was justified in its decision to declare Ebonics a language, because of the new opportunities African-American students will have because of it.  Although there was a lot of opposition to the resolution, many have remained firm that it was a good decision. I also believe that we each have our little accents and language quirks, and that we have no right to judge another culture’s language. "A founding principle of our science is that we describe how people talk; we don't judge how language should or should not be used," Professor Rickford explained. I agree with Rickford’s explanation and hope that in the future we see further suggestions to improve communication and language around the world.


Works Cited

Greppin, John A.C.. “The Triumph of Slang.” Times Literary Supplement. 1 Feb. 2002. SIRS Researcher.  Southern Utah University Lib., Cedar City, Ut. 22 Mar. 2006 <http://sks.sirs.com>.

Hamilton, Kendra. “The Dialect Dilemma.” Black Issues in Higher Education. 21 April 2006. SIRS Researcher. SUU Lib., Cedar City, Ut. 3 April 2006. <http://epnet.com>.

MacNeil, Robert. “Do you speak American?” USA Today. Jan. 2005. SIRS Researcher. SUU Lib., Cedar City, Ut. 22 Mar. 2006 <http://sks.sirs.com>.

Muwakkil, Salim. “Hooked on Ebonics.” In These Times. 3 Feb. 1997. SIRS Researcher. SUU Lib., Cedar City, Ut. 22 Mar. 2006 <http://sks.sirs.com>.

Rickford, John. Suite for Ebony and Phonics. New York: 2004.

Sneider, Daniel. “Slang or Language? Black English in Oakland Schools.” Christian Science Monitor. 23 Dec. 1996. SIRS Researcher. SUU Lib., Cedar City, Ut. 3 April 2006. <http://sks.sirs.com>.