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Ebonics

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The “shape” of Black English is like the world of slavery connected by a tunnel to today’s world. Its shape started when captured Africans were brought together and formed a communication replica of the biblical Tower of Babel. Because slaves, ranging from West Africa to Mozambique in Southeast Africa, were as varied in speech as in appearance when herded together, they developed an African slave pidgin while awaiting deportation to the New World.

A second pidgin, the lingua franca, developed between master and slave. A third, the African American pidgin, arose variously among the slaves of the Caribbean, South and Central America, Mexico, and the USA. As these pidgins started moving down the tunnel from “then” towards “now,” various Creole languages evolved out of the many pidgin languages.

The most prominent of the Creole patterns was Gullah -- particularly common in Barbados. When the Barbajians (“Bajans” for short) were taken to the new colony of South Carolina and its Sea Islands, their pidgin language underwent the least amount of racial, cultural, and religious mixings. This made Gullah the leader of all Creole languages spoken by Black people.

To encompass all of these Black dialect differences, Robert Williams, an African American psychologist, coined the term “Ebonics” (ebony and phonics). He defined Ebonics as Black sounds, not Black English. However, most others now call it a “Black English” language since a language, in contrast to a dialect (altered forms of an underlying tongue), has its own internally consistent syntax and grammar.

Others still say it is an ethnic social dialect. Nevertheless, as a mix (like Pidgin or Creole) of English and the syntax and grammar of mainly West African languages, it has arisen as an oral tradition of Blacks. Whereas Ebonics is an offshoot of standard English, English itself is a bastardized mix of Old Teutonic, Latin, and French as well as contributions from all of the world’s major languages. Black English is not bad or ugly or even ungrammatical because it is what it is despite anyone's value-judgement.

Among many Negroes it is a relaxing expressive form of fellowship and solidarity: “Ih jus bees dah way” (translation: “I can’t help it”). Personally, it really grates on me to hear Negroes say: “I axed him” instead of “I asked him.” “Axed” is violent destruction and does not say what was meant. In high school our Black teachers came down hard on us for running words together: “Geete?” for “did you eat yet?”

Yet, much of Ebonics is fluid, flexible, and rhythmic. It is nothing to be ashamed of as long as it conveys what was intended and is used in the proper setting. In improper settings it can embarrass many Blacks just to hear it. Otherwise, when students are aware of their lack of knowledge in using proper English they may be too embarrassed to speak in classroom discussions.

The fact is that Blacks in a White dominated society must learn both cultures and should learn both languages. To deny Ebonics is to deny Blacks their cultural heritage and thereby damage their self-concept. Denial is unfair and hard on those Black children who enter school speaking and understanding it as a comfortable habit.

But they need, for their own self-worth and self-value, to learn to speak English expertly since this opens the door to many more opportunities. Because Whites usually have the power to shape the success of certain Blacks, it is wise to not do things that make matters worse, like speaking “bad” standard English, as White judge it.

In White America, standard English is generally required for educational and economic well-being. As ridiculous as it is, one’s intelligence is often judged by the way one uses the language. Corporate America tells college students that oral and written communication skills are the most important abilities needed to be successful in business.

Blacks who do not speak standard English are not as readily accepted into mainstream White America where the big money and power are. Neither are they accepted well by the Black middle class.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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