Below are a few good primer articles on Ebonics, what linguists and schools in America used to call what American blacks speak. That was changed to Black Vernacular English. Now that’s been changed to African American Vernacular English and is considered a dialect of English rather than a separate language.
I remember years ago hearing that there was a name for the language that black Americans spoke, called Ebonics, the idea implying that they spoke a different language than English. Now on the surface this makes sense. Living in New York City, the most culturally diverse city on planet earth (statistically speaking), in a variety of different mixed neighborhoods, I freely admit that I cannot necessarily carry on a conversation in “black”.
I know this to be true because we live in a neighborhood that is 65% black. (As an aside, this particular neighborhood is also THE famous anti-Israel orthodox Jewish neighborhood that’s been here forever and is always in the news. Orthodox Jews make up approximately 20% of the neighborhood. And the rest is white. We are a small minority here.
As I’ve mentioned in other essays here, whites and blacks do encounter each other here, a lot. New York City is a very OPEN community leaning place to live. Some say it’s because our homes are so small. It is true. We live in tiny little apartments the size of most of the rest of American’s TV room. So we are always outside. Or on the roof. Or at some diner or restaurant or cafe. Or just sitting on a bench or at a park or walking. Anything to get outside and out of our apartments.
We share the same neighborhood after all, the same subways, streets, sidewalks, and bodegas… but interestingly we rarely frequent the same stores or restaurants. Where they go for these things is as mysterious to me as where we go is to them probably.
But the point is all of us hear each other speaking when we are out. And at the risk of sounding racist or ignorant, I’ve noticed for decades that black people do speak differently than I do. And vice versa. I’ve been made fun of a few times by black people because of how I speak when I’m hanging out in or have wandered into a particular area. They’ll mock or mimic the way I speak. Usually in jest. So it obviously goes both ways. And it’s not just an accent thing, like with people from Alabama or Wisconsin or Boston or North Dakota. It’s more than an accent.
It’s the pronunciation of words and the way the sentences are formed and the words that are used. I usually can only understand about half of the sentences in terms of what was said and what was meant. But I always took it for granted. I use google all the time to look up phrases I hear black people say in order to learn what they mean, or why they’re saying a word or phrase like that.
Then one day, going back about ten years, a friend of mine asked me “why black people pronounce the word ask like axe”. I said “I dont know. but maybe it’s part of the whole Ebonics thing. I’ve heard that linguists consider that black Americans have their own language.”
Examples like: “it’s been a minute”. “My moms” instead of “my mom”. “I gots” instead of “I have”. “Ima” instead of “I’m going to”. “My nigga” instead of “dude” or “man”. “Exspecially”. “Esactly”. “Gonna”. “Gotta”. “Shorty”.
There are thousands of examples of this in a google search. People are genuinely interested in this topic now. And yes it is surprising once you start studying the language just how different it is grammatically and in vocabulary and pronunciation than standard English. There are hundreds of examples of stark contrasts that one would have to learn from being raised speaking it or have to study formally.
The original question opened my ears to the phenomenon and started me on a ten year journey of research and study about this subject. And sure enough, there is a raging debate amongst academics and public schools nationwide about just this very topic. It is agreed on that the majority of black Americans, not all of them, do speak a form of English that is different than other groups of Americans, and broadly different than what is known as Standard English.
Hence the origination of the term Ebonics in the 1970s to try to give this special language a formal name. The term was changed to Black Vernacular English (BVE) first, and then to African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
Some schools want to teach both Ebonics — to those who speak it naturally and those who don’t, AND have special classes for Standard English, the idea being that there’s a great divide between the two languages and it’s not just linguistic but cultural, i.e. how can a student who has spent his whole life only speaking reading and writing AAVE then enter a school and be expected to speak read write and learn in what is essentially almost an entirely different language i.e. standard English. But the point has been made that American TV is almost all standard English, so “everybody has access to standard English in their day to day life”. Of course this presupposes that “everybody” watches TV and watches the same shows. Not so sure about that.
Some people want the term(s) to equate to nothing more than a dialect of English. Similar to an accent, but with its own set of different words and grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Personally I think it’s somewhere in between. But because people like me, the average white person, can still understand someone when they are speaking to me in Ebonics or AAVE, the argument that it’s not a different language but only a dialect holds true. A
nd heck look at people from Louisiana. Or for that matter people from Great Britain. Tell me they aren’t hard to understand when they are “speaking English”.
“This seemingly separate language African Americans speak is what they speak at home and in their neighborhoods; it is a symptom of separation and separatism, not the cause of it.”
Thus teaching classes in both AAVE (Ebonics) and English in schools can be seen to increase inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. I would tend to lean this way. It certainly cannot hurt and if anything it would foster more communication and understanding between the differing groups… of all colors — because not all American blacks speak anything other than Standard English.
“Most linguists think of black English, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a dialect of English, not a separate language.”