What is Black English? What is Ebonics?

By ERNIE SMITH Ernie Smith

Ebonics means, literally, “Black sounds.”

The features of the language of African Americans — U. S. slave descendants of West and Niger-Congo African origin — has been recognized, described, and discussed for decades. While in recent years the appellations “Vernacular Black English,” “Black Vernacular English,” “Black English Vernacular,” and “African American Vernacular English” have gained some popularity, the phrase most prevalently used is “Black English.”

In the 1970s and in the 1980s, several books appeared on the language of slave descendants of African origin with “Black English” as their title. These include Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States, by Joseph Dillard (1972); Black American English: Its Background and Its Usage in the Schools and in Literature, edited by Paul Stoller (1975); Black English: A Seminar, edited by Deborah Sears Harrison and Tom Trabasso (1976), Black English: Educational Equity and the Law, edited by John Chambers Jr. (1983).

Conspicuously, in none of these works is “Black English” defined. By using the word “English,” these works inherently posit that the language of African Americans is “English.” And they also tacitly postulate that, being a variant of English, there is a genetic kinship between the language of African Americans with the Germanic language family to which English belongs. Yet, from a historical linguistic perspective, in terms of the “base” from which the grammatical features of “Black English” derive, nothing could be further from the truth. As a number of scholars have argued since the 1930s, African-American speech is an African Language system — the linguistic continuation of Africa in Black America.


In an attempt to find empirical data supporting the view that the language of African Americans is a dialect of English, I searched the literature on “Black English.” Although I found ample debate on whether “Black English” emerged as a result of a pidgin/creole hybridization process or as a result of African slaves being taught Old English “baby talk,” I found no empirical evidence that English is even the “base” from which “Black English” derives. This brings us to the issue of what criteria are used for defining and classifying any language, including English, in terms of its “genetic” or familial kinship.

In The American Heritage Dictionary, the word “English” is defined, in part, as, “The West Germanic language of the English (people) divided historically into Old English, Middle English, and Modern English and now spoken in the British Isles, the United States and numerous other countries.” While the definition tells us that English is a West Germanic language, the question remains, by what criteria was it discerned and decided that English is related to or akin to German and belongs to the West Germanic family of the Indo-European languages? Was it based on grammar rules, vocabulary, historical origins, or what?

According to Leonard R. Palmer in his text Descriptive and Comparative Linguistics: A Critical Introduction (1978), to establish a kinship or “relationship” between languages, one must go beyond vocabulary and look at grammar:

For … words are often borrowed by one language from another as a result of cultural contact. … What constitutes the most certain evidence of relationship is resemblance of grammatical structure, for languages retain their native structure even after their vocabularies have been swamped by foreign borrowing, such as has been the case for English … . (p. 23)

This prompts the question, what precisely is meant by the word “grammar” or “grammatical structure”? In their text Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction (1993) W. O’Grady, M. Dobrovosky, and M. Arnoff state:

In investigating linguistic competence, linguists focus on the mental system that allows human beings to form and interpret the words and sentences of their language. This system is called a grammar…. One of the fundamental claims of modern linguistic analysis is that all languages have a grammar. This can be verified by considering a few simple facts. Since all languages are spoken, they must have phonetic and phonological systems; since they all have words and sentences, they also must have a morphology and a syntax; and since these words and sentences have systematic meanings, there obviously must be semantic principles as well. As these are the very things that make up a grammar, it follows that all human languages have this type of system. (p. 4)

As defined in the quote above, in linguistics — and for purposes here — the word “grammar” means the phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic systems of a language. Therefore, if English is defined and classified as a Germanic language based on a criterion of continuity in the rules of grammar, then it stands to reason that “Black English” is defined and classified as a dialect of English because there is continuity in the grammar of “Black English” and the English of non-Blacks.

There is however, an incongruence in the empirical evidence. Those who believe that Black America’s language is a dialect of “English” have not documented the existence of a single Black dialect in the African diaspora that has been formed on an English grammar base (Jahn, 1961).

For the sake of argument, let us accept the view of some that “Black English” is a hybrid dialect invented by English-speaking European people during the colonial era as a “contact vernacular” or trade “lingua franca.” If one accepts this view, the dialect would have to be based on the grammar of the “English” language. English-speaking people would not have known the grammar of the Niger-Congo African languages and thus could not have invented a hybrid dialect on an African grammar base.

The problem with this view is that there is not a single example of a hybrid dialect that uses African words superimposed on an English grammar. If this view were valid, surely there would be at least one such dialect documented in the diaspora of Niger-Congo African slaves taken by the English.

The fact is, when one analyzes the grammars of the so-called “Black English” dialect and the English spoken by the Europeans and Euro-Americans, the grammars are not the same. While there has been extensive borrowing or adoption of English and other European words, the grammar of the language of the descendants of Niger-Congo African slaves follows the grammar rules of the Niger-Congo African languages (see Jahn, 1961 and Alleyne, 1971). In other words, based on a criteria of continuity in the rules of grammar, there is no empirical evidence that “Black English” ever existed.

An alternative thesis could be that it is not continuity in the rules of “grammar” but the etymology and continuity of the “lexicon” that is the criteria for defining and classifying languages as being related. Logically, if the etymology of the lexicon is the criteria for establishing familial kinship, and the bulk of the vocabulary of “Black English” has been borrowed or adopted from the English language stock, then “Black English” is a dialect of English. (see Romaine, 1994:163-5).

But if one uses such a criteria one must ask: Why is there a double standard? It is universally accepted that English has borrowed the bulk of its lexicon from the Romance or Latin language family. Yet English is not classified as being a Latin or Romance language but as a Germanic language.

Actually, the use of “vocabulary” to classify the language of African Americans is just as incongruent. That is, since Latin and French are the origin of the bulk of the English lexicon, how is it that African-American speech is even classified as an English dialect at all? If the dominant lexifier of the English language is Latin and French, then ipso facto the etymology of the dominant lexicon of so-called “Black English” is Latin and French. By this criteria, it logically follows that the dialect being called “Black English” would more properly be called “Black Latin” or “Black French.”

There is however, another possible definition or meaning of the phrase “Black English” — one that does not hinge on the criteria for classifying a language but rather one that has to do with how the word “Black” is perceived and defined. Those who posit this view contend that “any definition of Black English is closely bound to the problem of defining ‘Blackness.’” They posit that there is a wide range of characteristics and experiences among Black people, from those in the street culture to those in the middle class.

Concomitantly, there are many Blacks who are exposed to the English of the upper class and of educated native English speakers, while other Blacks have only been exposed to the dialects of English of the poorer whites. And there are Black people who, though they have not lived in close proximity to Euro-Americans, have had the benefit of an excellent English language instruction.

The argument is made that “Black English” is not merely the Black idiom of the particular English dialect to which a Black has been exposed. “Black English” refers to the English spoken by a Black person who has “mastered” and is ideally competent in his use of the grammar and vocabulary of Standard American English.

It must be stressed, however, that this “Black English” is not the “Black English” that is often described as having characteristics distinctively different from the Standard American English idiom. In fact, in terms of its grammatical structure, the “Black English” spoken and written by Blacks who are fluent or ideally competent in Standard American English is identical to that of the Euro-American’s Standard American English.

Thus, a critical examination of the literature reveals there are at least three distinct connotations that the appellation “Black English” can have. The first is that “Black English” is a dialect of African Americans that is “based” on mutant (baby talk) Old English and Middle English archaic forms. The second connotation is that “Black English” is a hybrid dialect of African Americans that has as its genesis the transactional or pidgin/ creole language of the West and Niger-Congo African slaves (see Joiner:1979). The third connotation is that “Black English” is the English spoken by mulattoes, house Negroes and Black bilinguals who have “mastered” the grammar and vocabulary of Standard English.

Let us now turn to the perspective of the Africologist or Africanist scholars that the native language or mother tongue of the descendants of West and Niger-Congo African slaves is not a dialect of English.


The term Ebonics was coined in January 1973, by Dr. Robert L. Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Williams coined the term Ebonics during a small group discussion with several African American psychologists, linguists, and speech communications professionals attending a conference convened by Dr. Williams entitled “Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child.”

Etymologically, “Ebonics” is a compound of two words: “Ebony,” which means “Black,” and “phonics,” which means “sounds.” Thus Ebonics means, literally, “Black Sounds.” As an all encompassing, non-pejorative label, the term Ebonics refers to the language of West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of Niger-Congo African origin. (See Williams 1975, p. 100).

In the sense that Ebonics includes both the verbal and para-linguistic communications of African-American people, this means that Ebonics represents an underlying psychological thought process. Hence, the non-verbal sounds, cues, and gestures, etc, which are systematically used in the process of communication by African-American people are encompassed by the term as well. This is the original and only intended meaning of the term Ebonics.

The consensus among the African-American scholars at the conference was that, owing to their history as slave descendants of West and Niger-Congo African origin, and to the extent that African Americans have been born into, reared in, and continue to live in linguistic environments that are different from the Euro-American English speaking population, African-American children are not from home environments in which the English language is dominant. The consensus was that, as evidenced by phonetic, phonological, morphological, and syntactical patterns, African-American speech does not follow the grammar rules of English. Rather, it is a West and Niger-Congo African deep structure that has been retained. It is this African deep structure that causes African-American children to score poorly on standardized scales of English proficiency.

In essence, the “genesis” or “origin” of the African-American child’s language is the West and Niger-Congo languages of Africa. While being segregated, denied, deprived, and socio-economically disadvantaged certainly has limited the African American’s exposure to and acquisition of Standard English, segregation and poverty is not the “origin” or root cause of the African-American child’s limited English proficiency.

When the term Ebonics was coined it was not as a mere synonym for the more commonly used appellation “Black English.” Rather, the term Ebonics was a repudiation of the lie that Niger-Congo Africans had no fully developed languages originally and that the genesis of human speech for English-speaking African slaves is an Old English “baby talk” or European invented pidgin/creole vernacular.


Since the 1930’s, a number of scholars have posited that African-American speech is an African language system. These include Carter G. Woodson, (1933), Lorenzo Turner (1973), Melville Herskovits (1940), Janheinz Jahn (1961),

Nathan Hare (1965), Adrian Dove (1968), Mervyn Alleyne (1971), Robert Twiggs (1973), Ernie Smith (1974), Robert Williams (1975), Anita DeFrantz (1975), Garrett X Duncan (1995), Aisha Blackshire-Belay (1996), and Karen Crozier (1996). These scholars have consistently maintained that in the hybridization process, it was the grammar of the Niger-Congo African languages that was dominant and that the extensive word borrowing from the English stock does not make Ebonics a dialect of English. In fact, they argue, because it is an African language system, it is improper to apply terminology that has been devised to describe the grammar of English to describe African-American linguistic structures.

For example, the scholars who view African-American speech as a dialect of English describe the absence of word-final consonant clusters as being “lost,” “reduced,” “weakened,” “simplified,” “deleted,” or “omitted” consonant phoneme.

But viewed as an African Language System that has adopted European words, African-American speech is described by Africologists as having retained the canonical form, or shape, of the syllable structure of the Niger-Congo African languages. Thus, in Ebonics, homogeneous consonant clusters tend not to occur. This is not because the final phoneme has been “lost,” “reduced,” “weakened,” “simplified,” “deleted” or “omitted,” but because they never existed in the first place. Hence it is by relexification (i.e., “the replacement of a vocabulary item in a language with a word from another, without a change in the grammar” — see Dillard 1973) that in Ebonics, English words such as west, best, test, last and fast become; wes, bes, tes, las and fas; the words land, band, sand and hand become; lan, ban, san and han; the words left, lift, drift and swift become; lef, lif, drif and swif — and so forth.

Similarly, the canonical form, or shape, of syllable structure of Ebonics is that of the Niger-Congo languages of Africa, i.e., a strongly consonant vowel, consonant vowel (CV, CV) vocalic pattern. Again, by relexification, in Ebonics, entire sentences will have a CV, CV vocalic pattern. In Ebonics, a sentence such as, “Did you eat yet?” will exhibit the CV vocalic pattern /j i j E t/ or /j u w i j E t. The reply, “No,” or, “Naw did you?” will exhibit the CV vocalic pattern /n O j u/. The sentence, “Did you eat your jello?” will by relexification exhibit the CV pattern /j u w i c o j E l o/.

Because they view African-American speech as an English dialect, Eurocentric scholars contend that in sentences such as, “You the teacher,” and,“That teacher she mean,” a copula verbal or the verb “to be” has been “deleted,” ”dropped,” or “omitted.” In contrast, because Africologists view the language of African descendants as an African language system, they contend that there has been no “deleted,” ”dropped,” or “omitted” copula or verb “to be” in the sentences, “You the teacher,” and, “That teacher she mean.” As an African language system that has an equational or equative clause phrase structure, the verb “to be” never existed in the first place.

Absolutely convinced that it is a vernacular dialect of English, Eurocentric scholars have also posited the existence of “double subjects” in so-called Black English. Viewing Ebonics as an English dialect, Eurocentric scholars mistakenly divide sentences such as, “That teacher she mean,” and, “My sister she smart,” into noun phrase (NP) and verb phrase (VP) constituents — as English would be properly divided. In contrast, equally convinced that Black American language is in fact an African linguistic system, the Africologists do not divide sentences such as, “That teacher she mean,” and, “My sister she smart,” into NP and VP constituents. As an African system, the division of an equative clause sentence structure is into “topic” and “comment” constituents. Hence, the pronoun “she” that follows the common nouns “teacher” and “sister” in each sentence is not a constituent of the “topic” segment of the sentence. It is a recapitulative pronoun that belongs to the “comment” segment or portion.

In sum, Ebonics is not a dialect of English. Theterm Ebonics and other Afro-centric appellations such as “Pan African Language” and “African Language Systems” all refer to the linguistic continuity of Africa in Black America. Euro-centric scholars use the term Ebonics as a synonym for “Black English.” In doing so, they reveal an ignorance of the origin and meaning of the term “Ebonics” that is so profound that their confusion is pathetic. (See especially the articles appearing in the Weddington edited issue of the Journal of Black Studies June 1979.)

Eurocentric scholars lack any logical explanation for why, in the entire African diaspora, there is not a single hybrid English and Niger-Congo African dialect that has an English grammar as its base with African words superimposed. They also lack any logical reasons for using vocabulary as their basis for classifying Black American speech, while using grammar as their basis for classifying English. In the process, they are exposed for the academic charlatans they are.

The imperative, however, is to recognize that all pupils are equal and hence, all pupils should to be treated equally. Limited-English-Proficient (LEP) Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American and other pupils who come from backgrounds where a language other than English is dominant are provided bilingual education and English as a second language programs to address their LEP needs. African-American LEP pupils should not, because of their race, be subtly dehumanized, stigmatized, discriminated against or denied. LEP African American pupils are equally entitled to be provided bilingual education and ESL programs to address their LEP needs.

©1997 Ernie Smith. See page 35 for References.