Ebonics Redux

Here it is again. The Houston Police Department has put out an oh so clever “ghetto dictionary of Ebonics”. Just as we saw in 1994, the issue of Black speech is the occasion for sly racist ridicule. The press and broadcasters could ridicule Blacks with no fear of charges of racism. Even Blacks joined in, calling for “proper” English, often in cadences replete with AAVE.

AAVE, African-American Vernacular English is the term people interested in evidence and science rather than crude racism use. Most of us in everyday use say “Black English” or some such. I sometimes hear or read someone exclaim with righteous indignation, “Black English!!?? What’s that???) Any moron can listen to a number of Black people and a number of White people speak and hear that many of the Black people speak a dialect different from the Language of Wider Communication. Some call the LWC Standard English (SE) but most of us do not normally speak SE. Nevertheless, the LWC allows a person not to stand out on the basis of his speech; AAVE, on the other hand, marks a person as belonging to the African-American community. That’s one of the functions of language.

In 1973, a linguist coined the term Ebonics to stake his claim in the on-going debate over whether the speech of many African-Americans is derived from non-standard English dialects, as John McWhorter asserts, or from a Plantation Creole derived from the maritime pidgin of the slave trade, as his mentor John Rickford posits. Rickford’s view is dominant but no one can prove his position since the roots of AAVE are lost in the early days of the Black presence in this country.

The term died in 1973 until it was resurrected in 1994 by the Oakland School Board to make the point that its teachers needed to familiarize themselves with AAVE since so many of their students struggled with reading and speaking SE due to their linguistic background in AAVE.

All hell broke lose. The pundits had a field day. Anyone who tried to remonstrate was heckled and hooted out of the public forum by stupid jokes and phoney imitations of Black speech. The Houston PD’s publication is just the latest in this crude racist attack on the speech and culture of African-Americans – but what’s new?

I saw the dictionary on CNN and was able to read a few entries. Who needs “mo” translated as “more”? That’s idiotic. Now defining a “forty” as a 40 oz. bottle of booze would be useful to an officer, but even here the police – or I guess I should call them the PO-leese, misspelled 40 as “fourty”. Oh well.

A dictionary of Spanish youth slang would be useful, as would a glossary of Black youth slang. Most AAVE is comprehensible to any English speaker; it the language of the grandparents and great-grandparents of these youths. But slang is fresh and I hear slang from my students I do not understand. But even most Black slang is known to everyone – who over the age of 30 doesn’t know that “crib” means “residence”?

So let’s not waste time denying charges of racism – it was racist. Racism is a fact of life in this country… we just have to deal with it. Most teachers and police officers are professionals who would like to do a good job so let’s give them the tools they need, including linguistic tools and stop wasting time on this racist crap.

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