Ebonics: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t a Language?*

Ita girl name Shirley Jones live in Washington. Most everybody on her street like her, ’cause she a nice girl. Shirley treat all of them just like they was her sister and brother, but most of all she like one boy name Charles. But Shirley keep away from Charles most of the time, ’cause she start to liking him so much she be scared of him. So Charles, he don’t hardly say nothing to her neither. Still, that girl got to go ’round telling everybody Charles s’posed to be liking her.

But when Valentine Day start to come ’round, Shirley get to worrying. She worried ’cause she know the rest of them girls all going to get Valentine cards from they boyfriends. That Shirley, she so worried, she just don’t want to be with nobody.

When Shirley get home, her mother say ita letter for her on the table. Right away Shirley start to wondering who it could be from, ’cause she know don’ nobody s’posed to be sending her no kind of letter. So Shirley, she open the envelope up. And when she do, she can see it’s a Valentine card inside, and she see it have Charles name wrote on the bottom.

So now everything going be all right for Shirley, ’cause what she been telling everybody ’bout Charles being her boyfriend ain’t no story after all. It done come true!

Sample of Ebonics quoted by linguist John McWhorter in Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of “Pure” Standard English.


Welcome to the world of black speech – Ebonics, a portmanteau word which blends ebony and phonics. This term has an interesting history. It was in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities were carried out. In 1973 a group of black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of ‘Nonstandard Negro English‘ came up with Ebonics. However the term did not catch on with most linguists or the public at large. Indeed Ebonics is still not a term usually employed by linguists, who prefer “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE). However, I am going to use Ebonics because it is the shortest and the catchiest.

Ebonics hit the headlines in California in 1996 when the Oakland School Board recognized it as the ‘primary’ language of its majority African American students and resolved to use it in teaching Standard English. This decision provoked outrage in many circles. Faced with this backlash, the school board backed down. A couple of years ago Ebonics again came o the fore when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, (DEA) solicited translators to interpret wiretapped conversations for their investigations. The DEA was looking for translators in over 100 languages and dialects. Among the positions available were for nine Ebonics translators. For some reason they were criticised for doing this. I think the was on drugs is a massive folly, but if you are engaged in combat it is helpful to know what the enemy is saying.

Is Ebonics a language, a dialect or simply broken English? In this article I intend to debunk some popular misperceptions. Ebonics is seen as one part slang and one part bad grammar. It does have slang, as does any language, but it also has a set of grammatical constructions that are systematic and rule-governed.  Although these structures are often regarded as mistakes by speakers of Standard English., Ebonics is not the result of random ‘error’. After the Oakland incident the Linguistic Society of America issued a resolution defending Ebonics. Here is a short extract:

The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as “slang,” “mutant,” ” lazy,” “defective,” “ungrammatical,” or “broken English” are incorrect and demeaning.

So what are the grammatical, lexical and phonological features of Black English? Let’s look at some examples of how it works:

Part of the distinctive flavour of Ebonics is provided by what is omitted. It doesn’t have a marker for the third person singular present tense in verbs and auxiliaries. Nor does it have the past markers typical in Standard English. One of the most distinguishing features of Ebonics is the use of be to indicate that performance of the verb is of a habitual nature:

James happy = James is happy right now

James be happy = James is usually happy/a happy person

On seeing a pedestrian outside his window a black person would not exclaim “He be walkin’ by!” That would sound quite odd. It would be nothing less than incorrect Ebonics like all speech varieties, can be spoken wrong as well as right. Double negatives are another staple of Ebonics, and we are taught that those are terrible in English, yet they are used in other languages; Spaniards say No sé nada and the world doesn’t end. So they are not universally bad grammar.

To many people, the first examples of vocabulary that come to mind are slang terms such as homie, bling-bling and yo. This last word can be used at the beginning of a sentence and at the end. It can also replace your.

Ebonics pronunciation includes features like the omission of the final consonant in words like ‘past’ (pas’ ) and ‘hand’ (han’).The pronunciation of the th in ‘bath’ as t (bat) or f (baf), and the vowels in words like ‘ride’ is pronounced as a long ah (mah, rahd). And the th sound is pronounced d as in dem and dose: Of course many of these features are not confined to Ebonics.

Another important myth is that Ebonics is African in origin. The contribution of West African languages to Ebonics is insignificant. The consensus among linguists is a counterintuitive idea; Ebonics is actually a hybrid of regional dialects of Great Britain. The slaves brought to America were forced to work alongside the indentured servants who spoke those dialects. The habitual be is believed to have been picked up by interactions with Ulster immigrants.

We need to bear in mind that Ebonics was a created by adults rather than children, and so some streamlining took place.  This is analogous with what happened to Old English as it was transformed into Middle English with the wholesale loss of inflectional endings. The simplified English we speak today is partly the result of mistakes made by Viking Speakers. Mistakes are an important motor of linguistic change.

The difference between a language and a dialect is notoriously difficult to pin down, but I think Ebonics is not a separate language, but another dialect of English. McWhorter compares Ebonics and Standard English to Sicilian Italian and Standard Italian. Both can coexist. However, it is important that students be able to switch between codes. It is necessary to master Standard English if you want to be taken seriously. I do think we need to celebrate the diversity of human languages and dialects. I am not saying this to be politically correct, but because it is borne out by linguistics. I will finish with a quote from John McWhorter:

“In that light, we can see that the impression Black English has given many, of being an often cute, sometimes even thrilling, but ultimately Black English primitive bad habit is just that, an impression, which falls like a house of cards on scrutiny. The truth is that Black English is every bit as complex and subtle as Standard English and is nothing less, than a national treasure.”


* I nicked the title from a chapter from John McWhorter’s book Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of “Pure” Standard English. You can read the chapter online here.


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