African American Vernacular English Legal Recognition The variety of English known as African American English, Black English, African American Vernacular English, and the unscholarly, albeit more popular term Ebonics, is a dialect that has been spoken by many African Americans since the slave trade. This particular variety of English is one which, although rich with history, is widely considered to be mere slang if not a purely bad and ungrammatical deviation of English spoken by uneducated African Americans. This uninformed opinion is widely accepted, however empirically incorrect. African American Vernacular English is a variety which has the aid of over forty years of linguistic study to sponsor its validity as a systematic and rule governed dialect of English (LSA, 1997). Nevertheless, the segregation and racism that continues to plague black communities is precisely that which fuels African Americans’ adherence to AAVE in a society where command of Standard English is an economic necessity. In 1996 the Oakland School Board in California passed a resolution recognizing African American Vernacular English as a dialect of Standard English. The Oakland Resolution called for the funding of LEP (Limited Language Proficiency) to be available for African American students as equally as it is distributed to ESL (English as a Second Language) students (Perry & Delpit, p. 58). The Oakland Resolution was controversial for many different reasons: First and foremost, the language of the resolution was considered by some linguists to be ambiguous; this led to a great deal of confusion over the true purpose of the Resolution (Filmore, 1997). Many Americans, even prominent black leaders such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a champion of black rights, misinterpreted the resolution to mean that the Oakland School Board intended to teach American students how to speak “black” (Perry & Delpit, p. 38). Of course, this is not the intention of LEP funding for African American students. Rather, LEP funding would provide for teachers to undergo training in AAVE so they may be more equipped to teach African American students to master Standard English. The Oakland Resolution was the first to recognize the needs of African American students who accounted for 71% of students who were considered to have special needs and whose average grade point average was a D+ (Perry & Delpit, p. 3). Educators realized that students cannot learn from teachers who cannot understand them and vice versa; and children do not want to learn from teachers who constantly correct and ridicule their language skills. The Resolution was not an act of desperation, a means to an end, or a shot in the dark, as many critics believed; the Resolution was based on the exhaustive study of the dialect that has been spoken by African Americans since the slave trade. Research One of the earliest studies of AAVE came from Harrison (1884) whose “unsophisticated” linguistic explanations for some of the most prominent features of AAVE, remain widely held beliefs by many critics of the language (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 2). Harrison considered AAVE to be a grammatically lazy and incorrect way of speaking Standard English and which is utilized by uneducated “negroes” (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 2). In this excerpt, Harrison describes AAVE as “baby talk:”


Much of his [negroes] talk is baby-talk… the slang which is an ingrained part of his being as deep-dyed as his skin… the African, from the absence of books and teaching, had no principle of analepsy in his intellectual furnishing by which a word, once become obscure from a real or supposed loss of parts or meaning, can be repaired, amended, or restored to its original form (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 2). Twenty years after Harrison’s view of African American “baby-talk,” researchers Bennett, Krapp and Menken offered this view of the Gullah dialect which is found in black communities in the coastal southeast: Intellectual indolence, or laziness, mental and physical… shows itself in the shortening of words, elision of syllables, and modification of every difficult enunciation… It is the indolence, mental and physical, of the Gullah dialect that is its most characteristic feature (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 2). In “The American Language” (1919) Menken went a step further to an all-out racist assault in his view of the Gullah dialect: “…[they] wrapped their clumsy tongues about it [peasant English] as well as they could, and enriched with certain expressive African words, it issued through their flat noses and thick lips as so workable a form of speech that it was gradually adopted by other slaves (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 3). It was precisely this type of racism, if not only pure ignorance, that followed the Oakland Resolution and led many people, even educated people, to believe that the school board intended to teach American students to speak “bad” English. Even before the Oakland Resolution, another controversial court decision pushed the study of AAVE to the forefront of linguistic scrutiny. In 1979, a federal judge found Ann Arbor School District guilty of violating the equal opportunity education rights of a group of African American children by failing to recognize their language needs (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 7). William Labov, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of several linguists who testified at the Ann Arbor trial. Labov defended the validity of AAVE and attributed the most remarkable linguistic contributions to the study of African American Vernacular English to African American scholars: …Members of an oppressed people have entered an academic field, taken up the tools of linguistic research, and used them for the advancement of their nation. The forerunners of this movement were isolated and ignored in their lifetime… The Ann Arbor trial marks a turning point in this dismal history. The trial was the initiative of black people: the mothers of the Green Road children, the lawyer Kenneth Lewis, the linguist Geneva Smitherman, and many other members of the black community… (Smitherman & Baugh, p. 8). Features of AAVE

3 Although the Ann Arbor decision is nearly thirty years old, it unfortunately did little to educate the nation on the rich history of AAVE and its legitimacy as a distinct dialect; one which is not a deviation of standard English but a language all its own. In “Unendangered Dialects, Endangered People” (2005) William Labov notes that the ability of AAVE to flourish while other dialects seem to die off is because of the sustaining racial segregation of African Americans (Labov, p. 1). Labov’s research reveals that African Americans who have the opportunity to experience life outside of the confines of segregated communities, and who are actively involved with citizens who speak different dialects, are more likely to lose some of the most prominent features of AAVE (Labov, p. 15). Labov identifies the following as general characteristics of AAVE: a. b. c. d. e. It does not participate in the regional sound changes characteristic of the surrounding white vernaculars. Several phonological constraints on leniting sound changes are aligned with those operating in other English dialects but operate at higher frequencies (consonant cluster simplification, auxiliary contraction and deletion). Several morphosyntactic features are absent (subject-verb agreement except for finite be: attributive possessive {s}) Variable preterit marking due to high levels of consonant cluster simplification is reinforced by the use had as a past tense marker. Unique mood and aspect markers have developed with new semantic features. (Labov, p. 2).

These features of AAVE that are certainly different from Standard English do not appear at random but are staples of the language; these features do not muddy the grammar but rather support its efficiency. AAVE has been described by linguist Ralph W. Fasold to be superior to Standard English because of its verbal tenaspect system (Fasold, 1999). In Standard English the laborious task of long passages and the inclusion of inflections and copulas are syntactically required to avoid ambiguity; in AAVE, the tense/aspect system does away with many inflectional suffixes and copulas and still manages to reveal mood (Fasold, 1999). Mood markers of AAVE, particularly the “habitual be” have been present in the dialect since the 19th century (Labov, p. 6). Geneva Smitherman, Professor of English and director of the African American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University, identifies the habitual be as a word which is used “to indicate continuous action or infrequently recurring activity” (Smitherman, p. 13). The development of be as not only a habitual but an unfixed invariant of the semantics of AAVE has brought new uses of the word (Labov, p. 8). Be done is another aspect marker of AAVE: The combination of (will) be with perfective/intensive done has been co-opted in AAVE to signal the compound tense equivalent to the future perfect (will have) in other dialects. Perfective done is well established in the South and in Caribbean Creoles. It is combined with be done as a transparent equivalent of the future perfect (Labov, p. 9). It should also be noted that this use of be done does not translate well in other dialects, mainly Standard English (Labov, p. 9). The be done of AAVE is not the equivalent of is done in

4 Standard English; rather be done connotes a future occurrence. Furthermore, syntax choice can actually allude to the likelihood of an occurrence. Another mood marker in AAVE is the use of come which is most often used as an emphatic marker in the historical present (Baugh, p. 113). John Baugh, Professor of Education and Linguistics at Stanford University, cites these observations from Arthur Spears of the use of come as a mood marker: 5. 6. 7. 8. He come walking in here like he owned the damn place. He come trying to hit on me. She come going in my room, didn’t knock or nothing. He come coming in here raising all kind of hell. (Baugh, p.113).

Some of the emotions that come is capable of revealing are: outright indignation, indignation combined with disbelief, disbelief, disbelief combined with hope, hope combined with belief, and hope as the foremost response (Baugh, pp. 113,114). Ralph Fasold compares AAVE with Scots, a Germanic language found in Scotland which is also frequently viewed as a grammatically corrupt form of Standard English (1999). Scottish educators have also been faced with questions as to the best way to educate children who speak Scots to master Standard English. The difference, however, between Scots and AAVE is that Scots has a recognized grammar and dictionary and Scots will most likely be an endangered dialect in the next few generations, unlike AAVE which has no chance of following suit (Fasold, 1999). Dialects that were once found in areas where Italian, Irish, German, and Polish immigrants were segregated in cities such as Philadelphia and New York City, have virtually disappeared as these ethnic groups were assimilated into American culture (Labov, p. 14). Most of America’s immigrant population has been desegregated while African Americans continue to live in segregated communities; this is the focal explanation of not only the prevalence of AAVE but the growth of the dialect (Labov, p. 14). The passive exposure of African American’s to the Standard English of the mass media and of their teachers is not enough to affect the basic grammatical and phonological features of AAVE (Labov, p. 16). It is only when African American speakers of AAVE are actively involved with speakers of Standard English that their dialect is altered in any way. But more than this adherence to AAVE is caused by socioeconomic factors, namely residential segregation, there is a conscious effort by many African American’s to maintain the use of their language to preserve their heritage. Forfeiting the very language that their ancestors were forced to create as a means to survive slavery is not an acceptable option for many African Americans. Origins AAVE is thought by many scholars including William Labov and John Rickford to have creole origins. African slaves were isolated from one another in order to prevent revolts against their owners; this made it very difficult for slaves to communicate with one another; it is possible that a pidgin or “abrupt creole” was born out of these cruel circumstances. Dillard offered this comparison between Black English and the Creole English of the Caribbean: The English of American Blacks retains some features which are common to both

5 Caribbean and West African varieties of English. Like the West Indian varieties, American Black English can be traced to a Creolized version of English based upon a pidgin spoken by slaves; it probably came from the West Coast of Africaalmost certainly not distinctly from Great Britain (Dillard in Smitherman & Baugh, p. 5). African slaves were not permitted to go to school so many of them taught themselves to read, probably from the Bible: “A language comes into existence from brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey” (Perry & Delpit, p. 69). African slaves educated themselves out of this necessity; their freedom depended upon learning the language of the people who enslaved them. In order for the slaves to gain an upper hand over their owners, the slaves encoded their language: many English words took on new meaning, sometimes opposite meanings, and this tradition continues today (Smitherman, p. 26). The encoded features of AAVE has been largely disambiguated as many African American words and phrases have crossed over into white culture through the mass media (Smitherman, p. 27). White imitators come from all backgrounds, including the upper classes; these imitators pluck words and phrases from AAVE from hip hop and rap music, from television and film, and their imitation is often offensive to African Americans. David Claerbaut, author of “Black Jargon in White America” describes the crossover of AAVE into white culture: A vast number of once uniquely black terms have in recent years been pirated by white society, especially white youth culture. Although imitation is often considered the highest form of compliment, and although a certain amount of culture interchange is natural, such indiscriminate theft is deeply resented by many blacks… It requires little insight, however, to understand that such practices hardly bring about this idealistic objective. “Stealing a man’s culture is hardly a way of befriending him. Respecting it does” (Smitherman, p. 28). The average imitator of AAVE who picks up bits of words and phrases and slang from influences such as the mass media will not fare well in African American culture; because so many people are unaware of the grammatical rules of AAVE, it would be very difficult for them to pass themselves off as a part of that culture. Replacing the “is” in Standard English with the habitual “be” of AAVE is not sufficient when attempting to imitate the AAVE dialect; they do not connote the same thing. Suffice to say, wearing baggy pants, a backwards ball cap and putting on airs with a phony “blackcent” won’t garner any respect from an African American. Remarks In 1619 the first African Slaves were brought to America; they could neither speak nor read English. Out of the conditions of enslavement, torture, and inhumane treatment, the variety of English known as African American Vernacular English was born out of necessity. AAVE is not a dialect comprised of mispronunciations, absent inflections due to laziness of speech, or overuse of slang; it is a language variety with rules of grammar just like any other language. The difference between AAVE and other varieties is that it is not widely recognized as the rich and artful language that it is- it has no textbook, it has no dictionary. It is, however, the dialect of an estimated 80% of African Americans. AAVE is not going the way of Scots because the residential segregation of African Americans is unrelenting. The “haves” (Smitherman, 2000)

6 are more abundant than they were thirty years ago; that is, African Americans who have educational opportunities and assimilate themselves into the American culture that exists outside the confines of segregated communities, become bilingual, speaking both AAVE and Standard English. The “have nots” are monolingual, speaking only AAVE and with very little chance of mastering the language of commerce, business, and mainstream politics: Standard English (Smitherman, p. 37). There are, of course, “have nots” in every culture. But the “have nots” of color are physically separated from those without color and their discourse system cannot and will not change if they are surrounded only by the voices of those who speak their distinct language.

References Baugh, J. (1999). Out of the Mouths of Slaves. African American Language and Educational Malpractice. Austin: University of Texas Press. Fasold, R. (1999). Ebonic Need Not Be English. Center for Applied Linguistics. December 1999. Retrieved September 1, 2006 from http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/ebonic-issue.html Filmore, J. (1997). Dialects. A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate. Center for Applied Linguistics. January 1997. Retrieved September 1, 2006 from http://www.cal.org/topics/dialects/ebfillmo.html Labov, W. (2005). Unendangered Dialects, Endangered People. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2006 from Perry, T., Delpit, L., (Eds.). (1998). The Real Ebonics Debate. Power, Language, and the Education of African American Children. Boston: Beacon Press. Rickford, J. (1997) Linguistics Society of America Resolution on the Oakland “Ebonics” Issue. Retrieved Sept. 1, 2006 from http://www.stanford.edu/~rickford/ebonics/LSAResolution.html Smitherman, G. (2000). Black Talk. Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Smitherman, G., Baugh, J. (2002). The Shot Heard from Ann Arbor: Language Research and Public Policy in African America. The Howard Journal of Communications. Retrieved September 1, 2006 from Academic Search Premier.

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