Validation for Ebonics?

Just recently, the Memphis Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced that it is interested in hiring those who understand a particular form of African-American English Vernacular (AAEV) that may be used in high crime areas.  Click the link to watch the story on Memphis Fox 13 news:‘ebonics’-plan-sparks-controversy

If you were to have asked me my opinion about the issue of Ebonics 5 years ago, I would have echoed probably similar sentiments that were against Ebonics and the teaching of Ebonics in the school system. However, as I reflect in 2010, I was quite ignorant in my thinking. When most people hear the work Ebonics, it is associated with slang spoken in some African-American Communities.

The history of the term Ebonics dates back to 1973, where it was first coined by some black scholars to set a clear definition of dialects of certain languages spoken by African descendents in areas like the United States, the Caribbean, and certain pockets of Latin America. Ebonics simply means black speech. I’m certain it will also apply to areas in Europe where there are high populations of people with African heritage.

What is troubling about the Ebonics translator is that AAEV spoken in the streets varies from the AAEV spoken in middle class homes, it also varies from region to region in the United States. It can even vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. If you want a slight example from Memphis, check out rap duo 8Ball & MJG who are from Orange Mound versus North Memphis’  Three Six Mafia or Triple 6 Mafia (they changed their name to Three 6 Mafia)(They also go by 3 6 or Triple Six). In the South, it is quite common to hear some form of AAEV spoken by anyone regardless of race given the history of African-Americans in the United States during Slavery and Reconstruction.

 Another issue with Ebonics is that the nature of the vocabulary changes from generation to generation. For example, in the 80s and the first half of the 90s, you may have heard the words funky or fresh used frequently. In most cases funky mean having a good quality of uniqueness. Fresh could be described the same but it was more associated with new.  Funky is still used but it definition alternates as having the qualities of the funk music genre, or something to make you want to dance.  If you were born before the 60s and you heard some form of AAEV, you may have heard the term jazzy being used. Jazzy had the same meaning for some who lived during the 40s-70s as funky was for those of us who were growing up in the 80s and 90s.

There are good arguments on both sides of the issue. According to one African-American who is against the teaching of AAEV in the schools, Standard American English is taught in the classrooms all across the country in every state. He told the L.A. Times, “I have been living in Europe for the past 10 years and could never imagine the English teaching other English through the use of Cockney, or the French through Titi Parisian.” This gentleman was an English as a Foreign Language teacher.

If we were to look at how other languages are taught in different areas, we need to look at what forms are being taught. In one Louisiana university, the French department is offering a course in Cajun French and at a certain school in Indiana, they offer a course in the Haitian Creole language. In compulsory K-12 education, it is usually the standard form of a language that is taught. So, here is an idea. Would it not be worthy of at least a consideration on offering college courses for anyone in education, foreign language, research and/or linguistics on regional dialects in the United States and abroad? True, it is not possible to learn every dialect in the world but at least learning about regional languages will help those who are studying language, have the basic understanding that there is always the possibility of running into a situation in which you go to a foreign neighborhood. Now when I say foreign, I am referring to neighborhoods that you are not familiar with. Going back to our scenario, let’s say this is a neighborhood that you would not visit on a regular basis because (insert reason here). You are probably dazed because you are lost and do not know where you are and this is an area where you are not familiar with the people. You finally meet someone and try to ask for directions to get you back on a main street and they respond to you in their neighborhood vernacular. You may become frustrated if you are confused about what it is you are hearing.  Few people would probably become snippy and tell them to “speak English” even though they are speaking English to you, just not the English everyone hears in the classroom, medical facilities, government or business proceedings and facilities. They speak a form of English that may be spoken by the people who live in this neighborhood.

I had a discussion with my Reading in Content Area professor about this issue. I have a book, Cornrows by Camille Yarborough, that is written in a Southern form of AAEV. I have just recently started my practicum in an ESL classroom and was concerned about introducing literature written in the Southern AAEV. There was another student in my class in the room and she overheard my conversation, she begin to tell me that it is a good idea to allow them to hear and see this form of English (and then my professor chimed in) because here in Tennessee, outside of the classroom Southern AAEV is heard quite commonly. However we do not look at it as AAEV but rather as a form Southern English Vernacular (SEV). 

Let your mind contemplate this, y’all. Then let me know what you think.


~ by animeheather on 04/09/2010.

2 Responses to “Validation for Ebonics?”

  1. You said, “Another issue with Ebonics is that the nature of the vocabulary changes from generation to generation. For example, in the 80s and the first half of the 90s, you may have heard the words funky or fresh used frequently.”

    However, there is a distinction between slang and dialect or vernacular. Slang is based upon trends in vocabulary. Trends are not enduring, and do can change frequently within and across generations. Your example above concerns slang. However, dialect and vernacular are enduring, although specific to a region or specific social group. African American English Vernacular, as with any dialect or vernacular (as is definitionally true for all languages) has enduring structures and norms that tend to be fairly consistent across the nation. I think it’s important to make this distinction. I think to oppose AAEV as real or important to consideration of education support in the acquisition of code-switching skills into Privileged English Vernacular (AKA: Standard English) because of problems with the current slang in various locations — well, to me, that is like opposing Standard English because of concerns about acquiring valley girl or surfer lingo.

    Lastly, I’ve not come across any proposals to “teach” AAEV in k-12 education. I have come across proposals to recognized the distinct lingual functionality of the language in order to identify common differences between AAEV and Privileged American English Vernacular. The purpose of such is to develop curriculum and accompanying supports that can focus on and highlight those differences to students who speak AAEV, in order to better facilitate “our” acquisition of PAEV. This is no different than, say, Spanish shelter classes that use an understanding of the Spanish language to better aid students in developing PAEV fluency and skills.

    Just my two cents as I continue to research the topic.

    • The only issue that I will take against the slang vernacular issue is that when you have children who come from homes in which “slang” is treated as the home language and then it becomes part of the vernacular. Then it is passed down as mainstream in some neighborhoods. I’m not saying that it occurs through all neighborhoods but I see it in Memphis, some parts of Chicago, Gary, Houston, Jackson (TN), and certain parts of North Carolina.

      If you want to know more about the AAEV introduction into schools or proposals…it was 1996 in California. I can’t remember the person responsible at the moment. During the 2008 elections, Green Party candidate from Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s running mate stated on television that she wanted to see HipHop language being introduced in the classroom.

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