Suite for Ebony and Phonics
John R. Rickford
Published in Discover magazine, December 1997
(Final version is slightly different, reflecting editor's changes)
To James Baldwin, writing in 1979, it was "this passion, this skill, ... this incredible music." Toni Morrison, two years later, was impressed by its "five present tenses," and felt that "The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language." What these African American novelists were talking about was Ebonics, the vernacular or informal speech of many African Americans, which rocketed to public attention after the Oakland School Board approved a resolution in December 1996 recognizing it as the primary language of African American students.
The reaction of most people across the country--in the media, at holiday gatherings, and on electronic bulletin boards--was overwhelmingly negative. In the flash-flood of email on America Online, Ebonics was variously described as "lazy English," "bastardized English," "poor grammar," and "fractured slang." Oakland's decision to recognize Ebonics and use it to facilitate mastery of Standard English [SE] also elicited superlatives of negativity: "ridiculous, ludicrous," "VERY, VERY STUPID," "a terrible mistake." Linguists--the scientists who carefully study the sounds, words, and grammars of languages and dialects--were less rhapsodic about Ebonics than the novelists, but much more positive than most of the media and the general public. At their January 1997 annual meeting, members of the Linguistic Society of America [LSA] unanimously approved a resolution describing Ebonics as "systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties," and referring to the Oakland resolution as "linguistically and pedagogically sound." In order to understand how linguists could have had such a different take on the Ebonics issue, we need to understand how linguists study language and what their studies of Ebonics over the past thirty...