"The Oakland School Board did not turn to Ebonics because of linguistic interests, but because of the acute educational problems affecting African American students in their district, and the sense that taking the children's vernacular into account might help to alleviate such problems." – The Ebonics controversy in my backyard: A sociolinguist's experiences and reflections, by John Rickford, Stanford University
From Wikipedia: "On December 18, 1996, the Oakland, California school board passed a controversial resolution recognizing the legitimacy of "Ebonics" — i.e. what mainstream linguists more often term African American Vernacular English — as a language. The resolution set off a maelstrom of media criticism and ignited a hotly discussed national debate.
For students whose primary dialect was "Ebonics," the Oakland resolution mandated some instruction in that dialect, both for "maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills." This also included the proposed increase of salaries of those proficient in both "Ebonics" and Standard English to the level of those teaching LEP (limited English proficiency) students and the use of public funding to help teachers learn AAVE themselves.
"The US Senate Hearing on Ebonics. A number of linguists and educators (William Labov, Orlando Taylor, Robert Williams and Michael Casserly) joined educators from Oakland (including Superintendent Carolyn Getridge) in providing pro-Ebonics testimony at the US Senate Hearing on Ebonics on January 23, 1997. Several other linguists who could not be present (including myself) submitted letters to be read into the Senate record. This Hearing was a crucial event, since it was chaired by Senator Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which oversees the Title I education funds that support the Standard English Proficiency [SEP] program, in use in over 300 California Schools. Oakland's Ebonics resolutions were essentially a proposal to expand the SEP program--which involves contrastive analysis of Ebonics and Standard English--within its school district. Many of us feared that in the anti-Ebonics firestorm which was sparked by Oakland's proposals, Specter's subcommittee would yank title I funding from the SEP.
However, Senator Arlen Specter seemed to be impressed with the testimony. (A videotape of the hearing is available from C-SPAN, which provided TV coverage of it in its entirety.) Not only did he NOT withdraw funding for SEP, but he later supported a line item in the 1997 appropriations budget providing $1 million for research on the relation between the home language of African American students and their success in learning to read and write in Standard English. The research will be jointly conducted in Oakland (under the direction of Etta Hollins), and in Philadelphia (under the direction of William Labov). An attempt to curtail SEP funding at the State level, through California Senate Bill 205 introduced by California State Senator Raymond Haynes, was also defeated, in April 1997."
When I heard that the DEA was considering such a move, I could almost appreciate their intentions, but I think they may be a bit misguided. The first thought that came to mind was whether or not they are presuming that drug dealers speak a dialect of English, which matches that of the rest of urban black America?
Sure, there are going to be similarities, but most of my urban friends don't understand drug dealers either.
Dealers don't just sound like rappers, but actually structure a variation of language and sophisticated codes that nearly anyone would have trouble translating. Rather than hiring an ebonics expert to understand the lingo of drug dealers, they'd be better off hiring a former drug dealer.
The really unfortunate part of this story, is that by equating the argot of the drug dealers with AAVE or Ebonics, the DEA is unwittingly stating that speakers of these non-standard sociolects are essentially equivalent. In short, a federal agency is saying "blacks are drug pushers".
There is near uniformity of AAVE grammar, despite vast geographic area. This may be due in part to relatively recent migrations of African Americans out of the South (see Great Migration and Second Great Migration) as well as to long-term racial segregation. Phonological features that set AAVE apart from forms of Standard English include:
Word-final devoicing of /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/, whereby for example cub sounds like cup.
Reduction of certain diphthong forms to monophthongs, in particular, /aɪ/ is monophthongized to [aː] (this is also a feature of many Southern American English dialects). The vowel sound in boil (/ɔɪ/ in Standard English) is also monophthongized, especially before /l/, making it indistinguishable from ball.
AAVE speakers may not use the dental fricatives [θ] (the th in thin) and [ð] (the th of then) that are present in SE. The actual alternative phone used depends on the sound's position in a word.
Word-initially, /θ/ is normally the same as in SE (so thin is [θɪn]).
Word-initially, /ð/ is [d] (so this is [dɪs]).
Word-medially and -finally, /θ/ is realized as either [f] or [t] (so [mʌmf] or [mʌnt] for month); /ð/ as either [v] or [d] (so [smuːv] for smooth).
A marked feature of AAVE is final consonant cluster reduction. There are several phenomena that are similar but are governed by different grammatical rules. This tendency has been used by creolists to compare AAVE to West African languages since such languages do not have final clusters.
Homorganic final consonant clusters (that is, word-final clusters of consonants that have the same place of articulation) that share the same laryngeal settings are reduced. E.g. test is pronounced [tɛs] since /t/ and /s/ are both voiceless; hand is pronounced [hæn], since /n/ and /d/ are both voiced; but pant is unchanged, as it contains both a voiced and a voiceless consonant in the cluster. Note also that it is the plosive (/t/ and /d/) in these examples that is lost rather than the fricative or nasal. Speakers may carry this declustered pronunciation when pluralizing so that the plural of test is [tɛsəs] rather than [tɛsts]. The clusters /ft/, /md/, are also affected.
More often, word-final /sp/, /st/, and /sk/ are reduced, again with the final element being deleted rather than the former.
For younger speakers, /skr/ also occurs in words that other varieties of English have /str/ so that, for example, street is pronounced [skrit].
Clusters ending in /s/ or /z/ exhibit variation in whether the first or second element is deleted
Some really cool stuff going on with Tense and Aspect, too.
The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE [African American Vernacular English/Ebonics] to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely: “Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.
‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.’”‘” More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent: (1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog. The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.
“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.
‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.’”‘”
(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.
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