What is African American Vernacular English (Ebonics)?

March 12th, 2010
To begin with, calling African American Vernacular English synonymous with Ebonics is rather controversial.  Professional translation experts and linguists might try to distinguish between them, but for purposes of this article, they are the same. Ebonics refers to the dialect or ethnolect associated with African Americans in the United States.  It is a combination of words and grammatical forms from American English and from various tribal dialects brought over by captured slaves.  Though often considered a spoken language, it does sometimes appear in literature by or about African Americans, and features prominently in song lyrics in jazz, rap, and other African American music. Ebonics has strong cultural connotations which may or may not be advantageous.  Sometimes a person will adopt Ebonics—or at least a few aspects of it—into their speech quite deliberately, so as to cultivate a certain impression of being authentic and folksy.  President Obama might be pointed to as an example.  Obama was often accused of being too elitist in his days as a Presidential candidate.  In one stage in his campaign, he modified his accent and diction, apparently adopting a few aspects of Ebonics in order to counter such criticisms.  Other times, people who speak it will try to suppress it in themselves so as to appear more educated and prosperous. For the outsider, understanding Ebonics can be harder than it looks.  Some of the words are unfamiliar, or have a changed meaning.  The grammar is also significantly different.  How, then, are you supposed to learn Ebonics?  Will you have a hard time finding translation service or books that will help you understand Ebonics?  Of course.  Is this because a person speaking “standard” English does not need professional translation in order to decipher Ebonics?  Of course, this is false.  Ebonics can easily befuddle non-speakers.  Rather, it might be because many people believe Ebonics is not worth learning.  It simply does not have the cachet of, say, French, for which you can easily find classes and human translation. Actually, Ebonics, being treated less formally than other types of speech, can be said to be almost entirely passed about by human translation.  If you cannot learn or translate it out of books or programs, you pick it up by immersing yourself in the culture, places, and music associated with it.  This is the most “human” way to learn a language or dialect: a way of life being used as a translation service. Then again, the cultural associations of Ebonics are rather complicated, especially if we take a global view.  Many people who are neither African Americans nor from predominantly African-American neighborhoods sometimes adopt Ebonics.  Stereotypically, this is spurred by an interest in rap and hip hop.  However, the link between Ebonics and such music is also complicated, and perhaps even weakening, since many non-Anglophone communities have also developed their own rap and hip hop. For instance, German rap artist Bushido is quite popular among German-speaking communities, and he has little to do with Ebonics. Still, the situation for Ebonics and other ethnolects is changing.  Many American teachers believe that Ebonics should be given more recognition and respect, instead of being treated as wrong and substandard.  With schools being more accepting of Ebonics, perhaps the racial and classist prejudices some people have towards it will erode.

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