Many Black Americans do not speak standard English. They speak Ebonics ("Ebony," meaning "black" and "phonics," meaning "sound") -- a language which evolved in the Americas as a result of the adaptation of English words to an African language system. Since many African Americans do not speak standard English, "it is more than reasonable to suggest that in order to effectively and sussessfully teach the culturally and linguistically different Black child in the urban school the English language, the logical place to begin is with the cultural and linguistic experiences of the Black child. That is, with Ebonics, using a bilingual and bicultural approach."
This is the view of Dr. Ernie A. Smith, a distinguished author, lecturer and professor of linguistics at California State University at Fullerton. Dr. Smith believes that the high failure and drop-out rate of Black children across the United States is traceable to the fact that they are limited or non-English speakers, but neither the United States government, state departments of education nor local school boards recognize this fact. Hence, millions of dollars are spent to teach English as a second language to Mexican, Asian, Indian, Persian, Oriental and other non-English speaking people, while black children must be content with attempting to grasp knowledge imparted to them in a language that is not their own.
Dr. Smith emphatically rejects the view that Black Americans speak a version of "Black English," "Black vernacular" or "Black dialect." He believes that this was the chief misconception in the so-called "Black English" decision reached by Justice Charles Joiner of the United States District Court in Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children, et al. v. Ann Arbor School District (July 12, 1979).
According to Dr. Smith, the concept or term "Black English," as it is currently used in the literature, is contradictory. "It is like saying my sister is an only child. How can a person be your sister and still be an only child? If you say 'Black English' and speak utterances using syntactical patterns that are not English, it is impossible to maintain that you are speaking the English language.
"From a linguistic principle," Dr. Smith continues, "when you say two people of two speech communities speak the same language or different dialects thereof, the relative evidence for saying that it is the same language is that there is continuity of the morphology [defined below]. Knowing the sounds of the language will not make you a speaker of the language; nor will knowing the vocabulary of the language make you a speaker of the language. What you must know and master in order to speak any language, are: (1) the morphology, i.e., the rules combining the sounds to make words or the shaping and forming of words; and (2) the rules for arranging those words in a pattern or string to make a sentence, which is called syntax."
Black Americans, according to Dr. Smith, actually "think in and use African syntactical patterns, but they have borrowed and extensively used European words." Ebonics "follows the African deep structure in every respect when it is different from English, and there is solid empirical linguistic evidence of identical deep structure or syntactical patterns in West African languages."
What this means is that African people in America originally adapted English words to their own African system of pronunication, enuciation, morphology and grammatical sentence structure. So that the so-called "Black English" or "substandard English" still spoken by many Black Americans is in fact a separate language, Ebonics, whose basic foundation is clearly African.
Dr. Smith's conclusions are largely based on his research and the research of other scientists on the language and culture of Africans and African Americans.
For thousands of years, a number of languages have evolved on the continent of Africa. Included among these were the world's earliest written languages, which first appeared in the region of the modern day Congo and the upper Nile Valley about six thousand years ago. By the 16th century A.D., a number of different dialects were spoken in West Africa, homeland of the ancestors of most Black Americans. Although in many instances these dialects were mutually unintelligible, each of them possessed common phonological (sound) features and grammatical sentence structures. Therefore, many linguists believe that these languages had the same or similar origins and belonged to a single language family.
Furthermore, there are solid bits of empirical evidence that suggest that at this same time West Africans had developed a Lingua Franca or trade language spoken by common agreement between different language groups. According to Dr. Smith, this communication was facilitated by the vocabulary from several dominant languages such as Ngola, Fulani, Wolof, Yorbuba, Mandingo, Malinke, Bambara and Dwe. Because of these shared linguistic features, West Africans, who were brought to the New World as slaves, were able to retain a singular African language structure.
"When the black man was brought to the Americas from Africa," states Dr. Smith, "he was speaking Niger-Congo or what are called Hamito-Bantu languages. Niger-Congo is a geographical designation for the languages of West Africa. Hamito-Bantu is a cultural designation of these people -- Hamito and Bantu, referring to Black Africans as opposed to Afro-Asiatics, who are Arabs and Berbers, etc. These Hamitic and Bantu people, who were captured in West Africa, were speaking languages whose phonology, grammar and lexicon (words) were different from those of the Indo-European languages with which they came into contact in the New World.
"The African people," Dr. Smith continues, "were brought into America and the Caribbean speaking African languages; and as a result you see that, to the extent that they have been integrated into white society, there is more likelihood of their sounding European or borrowing more European features. To the extent that (Black Americans) have lived in social isolation, you will find the linguistic retention of an African Hamito-Bantu substratum in their phonology, grammar and vocabulary."
The early Black slaves actually spoke very little of the European languages, whether the dominant language in a particular country was English, Spanish, Dutch, French or Portuguese. "The Africans," Dr. Smith insists, "knew the words," but because most were denied a formal education and could not read, they generally did not learn the grammar of the European language to which they were exposed. "The greatest difficulty one has in mastering a foreign language is learning the grammar. You can learn the sounds that are different and you can learn and extensively memorize the vocabulary, but learning Spanish words won't make one a speaker of Spanish. What one has to know and speak in order to have competence in Spanish is the Spanish morphology or verb system." What the Africans spontaneously chose to do, then, was to maintain the "deep structure" (i.e., word formation and syntactical rules) of their own African languages and by relexification (i.e., using words from one language in the verb system or grammar of another without a change in the grammar), they adapted the vocabulary of the Indo-European languages to the structure of the languages that they had in Africa. "Ebonics," then, asserts Dr. Smith, "is an African morphology or substratum with French, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and English words in it," depending on where the Africans lived in the New World.
"A good analogous situation", states Dr. Smith, "is the English language. At one time the English language was not spoken on the British Isles. The islands were inhabited predominantly by what are called Celtic people. In about 449 A.D., the Celtics were under the domination of the Romans and Latin was spoken throughout the Isles. The Celtics began to hire mercenaries to help them expel the Scots and the Picts after the power of the Roman legions had waned. They hired some Jutes but mostly Anglos and Saxons, who were German tribesmen who spoke German. These people fought the Scots and Picts for the Celtic King, Vertigern...Following their expelling the Scots and Picts, after the Roman legions had disbanded, we find the English language -- an unintelligible dialect of German - being spoken on the British Isles. The word English comes from the word Anglish -- the Anglo-Saxon. These people had brought German to the British Isles, but English had evolved as a German dialect.
"The Anglo-Saxons dominated until 1066 A.D. when William the Conqueror, in what was called the Norman Invasion, established the rule of the French language, which was deeply rooted in the Latin spoken by the early Romans. French became the official language of the church, the schools and parliament, but the masses of people on the British Isle now spoke 'Anglish' This language, then, began to be influenced by the French, which was already genetically a Latin language kin to that of the Romans. 'Anglish' borrowed so extensively from the French language that even today, if you look at the etymology of 85 or 90 percent of the English vocabulary in any dictionary, you will find that English has received most of its vocabulary from the Romance languages, but the grammar of English still basically follows the German syntax and word order. For that reason, English is not considered to be a Romance language. The Romance languages are French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Italian, etc. The Germanic languages are German, English, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, etc.
"The same thing, I submit, occurred with the slave descendants of African origin...Black Americans are speaking an African language (Ebonics) with some European influence."
In supporting his contention that Black Americans speak Ebonics, Dr. Smith provides a number of phonetic illustrations, most of which are difficult to explain to laymen on the printed page. To get the full effect of Ebonics, one must actually hear the pronunciation of the words and syllables. In the case of consonant clusters, however, Dr. Smith's illustrations are very clear. Consonant clusters occur when two or more consonants appear together usually at the end of a word (for example,/ft/,/kt/ and /st/).
In his extensive study of the phonological structures of West African languages, Peter Ladefoged observed that "(m)any West African languages, including most of the Kwa groups, can be considered to have no consonant clusters." In the same vein, William Welmers, in his text, African Language Structures, states: "And Alan Kaye, reporting on the Chadic and Sudanese Arabic languages, adds: 'Sudanese Colloquial Arabic does not permit consonant clusters within a syllable.'"
After considering the opinions of these authorities, Dr. Smith states:
If we take the Ladefoged, Welmers, and Kaye report here as valid and substantially correct observations regarding West and Central African languages, the conclusion which I am compelled to draw from these collateral sources is that, in the West and Central African Hamito-Bantu, Niger-Congo languages, consonant clusters rarely if ever exist. Therefore, given the historical fact that African American people are descendants of West and Central Africans who were originally speakers of West and Central African Hamito-Bantu and Niger-Congo languages, it logically follows, from my perspective, that the existence of a systematic, rule-governed, and predictably undistributed consonant cluster configuration in African American speech today, may well be a linguistic feature of African-American speech which will be traced to the base of the historical process.
It is most important in this context, then, to note that, according to a number of other authorities on Black language (including J.C. Baratz, Ralph W. Fasold, William Labov, Paul Stoller and William Thomas) African-Americans, in speaking Ebonics, indeed do not pronounce final and past tense consonant clusters found in English. Therefore, in Ebonics, the English words left, drift, swift and lift will be pronounced /lef/, /drif/, /swif/, and /lif/, etc., just as they would be prounounced by Central and West Africans.
In Ebonics, the consonant cluster /ct/ (which in linguistic circles is recognized as /kt/) also does not occur. Therefore, in Ebonics the English words object, reject, respect and collect will be pronounced /abjek/, /rijek/, /rispek/ and /kelek/.
In Ebonics, the final consonant cluster /pt/ is also absent. Hence, the English words except, slept, crept and wept are pronounced /eksep/, /slep/, /krep/ and /wep/.
The /sk/ and /st/ consonant clusters found in English also do not exist in Ebonics. Therefore, the English words mask, desk, tusk and husk are pronounced in Ebonics as /mas/, /des/, /tus/, and /hus/; and the English words west, best, test, fast, last, list and mist are pronounced /wes/, /bes/, /tes/, /fas/, /las/, /lis/ and /mis/ in Ebonics.
In Ebonics the /ld/ and /nd/ consonant clusters are alo absent. Therefore, such English words as build, bold, hold, told, cold, mold, wild and child will be pronounced /bil/, /bol/, /hol/, /tol/, /kol/, /mol/, /wayl/, and /chayl/. Likewise the English words sand, hand, stand, land and grand or find, mind, kind and blind will be pronounced as /saen/, /haen/, /staen/, /laen/, and /graen/ or /fayn/, /mayn/, /kayn/, and /blayn/ in Ebonics.
Also absent from Ebonics is what is called the progressive suffix (ing). So that such English words as looking, talking and walking will be pronounced as /lukin/, /tokin/ and /wokin/ in Ebonics.
Another important example of the distinction between English and Ebonics, that clearly demonstrates what Dr. Smith calls "a linguistic continuation of the African Hamito-Bantu and Niger-Congo languages in Black America," is the use of the "retroflex velar spirant" /r/. In many European, Asian and African languages, as well as in Ebonics, this velar spirant /r/ does not exist; however, it is common in English. Hence, such English words as more, store, Sharon, carrots, Lord and Board are pronounced /mo/, /sto/, /saran/, /kaets/, /lawd/ and /bode/ in Ebonics. Likewise, the English words door, floor, pour and four are pronounced as /do/, /flo/, /po/ and /fo/ in Ebonics.
Another most interesting similarity between African languages and Ebonics is the absence of the interdental /th/ sound in both West African and African-American speech. Hence, such English words as this, that, these and those will occur in Ebonics as post-dental /dis/, /daet/, /diz/ and /doz/. Likewise, bath, mouth, both, breath, teeth, bathe, breathe and teethe will be pronounced as /baef/, /mawf/, /bof/, /bref/, /tif/, /bav/, /briv/ and /tiv/.
Dr. Smith recognizes that some scholars have argued that many of the features of Ebonics "can be found in Southern white and other varities of `White-trash' English," and therefore he is incorrect in his assumption that Ebonics is indeed a distinct language peculiar to Black people.
"To this argument," he states, "I can only point out that many Whites during antebellum slavery and even in modern times are reared during the ontogenetic [developing] period of their language. . .by Black mammies and therefore have adopted many African elements in their speech. Secondly, `White trash' as a population of America's poor are naturally more likely to rub elbows, like it or not, with Blacks and other suppressed minorities in low-paying occupational and low-rent or low-cost housing and school situations than they are going to rub elbows or interact with the more affluent Whites. Therefore, it should not be at all a mystery to any learned and honest individual as to why `White-trash English' sounds somewhat similar to Ebonics. On the surface structure. . . (phonetically and lexically), Ebonics is related to `White-trash English', however, in its deep structure, Ebonics and 'White-trash' English are autonomous languages."
Why has Dr. Smith spent several years studying Ebonics, lecturing and teaching about it on various college and university campuses and otherwise seeking to have it recognized as an autonomous language? "We should be taught English," he states, "as a second language. The English language. . .is a tool just like a tool for fixing a flat tire. It was one of the tools that I have found that was pivotal to my own growth and development.
"Every child does not come to a given classroom with the same degree of interference from Ebonics. So there is no one method of teaching English as a second language. There are different strategies that you use commensurate with the degree of interference from Ebonics that the child has. So that if the child is more phonologically different, that may be a basis for his spelling errors in that a child would tend to spell the words as they sound to him. But what he has to do is learn the English sound system or at least learn the demarcation between English and Ebonics so that he doesn't follow the phonic spelling...You can't use phonics, then, as a method of teaching English to Black people because our sound system is different from (the white) sound system. Phonics is okay if you are talking to a person who is basically an English speaker, but phonics alone does not help the average Black learner."
Dr. Smith, who also tutors Black junior high school children in English, tells of how eager the children are to learn once they realize that they are in effect learning a new language. "You teach them English as if it were French or German," he says. "Once you establish in their minds that this is English and what they speak is Ebonics, their whole attitude about what they are learning becomes different." And it is this change of attitude that spurs Dr. Smith on and convinces him that his drive to have Ebonics recognized as a legitimate, separate language of Black Americans will ultimately result in their mastery of English itself.
The MAAT Newsletter: EBONICS: A Serious Analysis of African American Speech Patterns