Word Up!By Erin Newman
Over the years “Ebonics” has become such a highly politicized word that many are misled or disillusioned by some of the stereotypical connotations that have come to surround it. Since the resolution by the Oakland school board in 1996 to recognize Ebonics as a language in its own right, as opposed to just a dialect of English, and treat speakers of African American English as students who would entail English as a Second Language Instruction, the issue has become widely contested in the media as it applies to academic and professional domains. Such a large contingent of people was upset by the resolution that it leads one to wonder what the underlying implications are that have led to such a controversy. Because it is such a complicated and delicate issue that involves speculation about socialization, linguistic legitimacy, and cultural exposure, it is difficult to bring new light to the matter. It might, however, be beneficial to expose more people to the different layers of the issue, especially from perspectives within the African American community. This is not to assume that all African Americans speak AAE, but the population for whom it is largely their home and community language can offer genuine “in-group” perspectives.
In a documentary that aired on PBS in 2008, African Americans from different parts of North Carolina offer their individual experiences or explanations of the way African American English functions in their own lives as well as in society, and its social relationship to Standard English. This segment from the documentary conveys the love that the African American Community has for language and the significance it holds in their culture. It shows how AAE varies from region to region, just as dialects of other languages do, as well as the language’s evolution through the generations as it has become progressively influenced by hip-hop culture. Speakers in the documentary communicate that although some regional varieties have pronounced differences between them, they are mutually intelligible from one another (which is not always the case with dialects of the same language).
One interviewee expresses how there is a strong in-group/out-group distinction between the people with whom one speaks AAE and those one chooses to speak Standard English with. He expresses that the people with whom he speaks AAE he feels a sense of mutual understanding and a level of closeness. He says that until he reaches a certain degree of comfort or familiarity with some one, he speaks a more common English. Speaking AAE thus constitutes a more intimate and familiar space. The subjects in the documentary do not attribute any special status to their language, but essentially express that it serves the same function as do any other languages. It is a unifying force and vehicle of solidarity for members of their community, and the spoken word holds special cultural significance and beauty for them given their strong tradition of oral history.
When the interviewees reference themselves and others who consciously choose to speak AAE or Standard English, they indicate that the fact that they have that capacity to switch between the two languages. This differs from the population of urban African American students taken into consideration in the Oakland public school board resolution because conversely, it was the lack of the ability to code-switch between AAE and Standard English which is what the resolution resulted from. It was the belief that the lack of academic success of this large percentage of students stemmed from an absence of the capacity to switch from AAE to Standard English. The assumption that the African American students from the Oakland public school district could not understand Standard English is a misdiagnosis, as the two languages are for the most part intelligible, especially for speakers of AAE who have more exposure to Standard English than speakers of Standard English have to AAE. The issue rather, seems to lie in the fact that students who speak AAE may understand Standard English, but do not necessarily respond in it. The resolution settled on instructing teachers in Ebonics in order to use the language as a tool to bridge between the two languages while enabling the students to maintain their home/community language.
At the end of the documentary segment, one of the interviewees brings up the question some speakers of AAE “struggle with internally” as to whether or not they should change their speech to a more common English in the broader realm of society. In other words, should they really modify their speech to “sound like white folk?” The implications of this question can be read in a multitude of ways.
One way of looking at is: AAE has been accredited with the status of a distinct language system by the Oakland public school board, Linguistic Society of America and other social institutions nationwide. Therefore, it should be treated as other non-standard English languages. For the most part, people have to conform to the linguistic norm of Standard English in professional and academic spheres, as denoted by social expectations. AAE should be spoken and maintained, but just as speakers of other languages must learn and speak Standard English when participating in certain sectors of society, so too should speakers of AAE. Additionally, Standard English is not a variety of English that individuals are born speaking. White, English-speaking children come into school and must be taught the Standard form of English, as are students from any other background, race, or ethnicity that may speak another language. The reason success rates may be higher for them is because their linguistic taking-off point is closer to Standard English than is that of speakers of AAE. Also, AAE historically, has been demeaned by greater society, which does not necessarily facilitate the motivation to learn the Standard language that is spoken by those responsible for the derision. Essentially, AAE (or Ebonics) should be treated equally to other non-English languages, meaning that its status as a distinct language should be respected rather than ridiculed or demeaned, as this attitude seems to be the most productive way to enable speakers to maintain the language while being able to speak Standard English is environments where it is conventional to do so.