I am fascinated by languages, whether they be written, spoken, or gestures. They can be dead, alive, common, rare, invented, unknown, or a mix of known languages. The key point is that we can communicate. I can send a signal and then receive a signal back.
We’re not sure at what point homo sapiens or their ancestors developed language, probably around the time a mutation allowed the larynx to descend. What we do know is that language evolves as it comes in contact with other languages or items and actions that previously had no “assigned” word now need one.
There has been plenty of debates circling Black English or Ebonics and whether or not the grammar structures and words that are referenced as such are a language. As an English teacher, I feel I should definitely explore this topic, but in no way am I an expert on linguistics or current research. So let’s explore…
First point I want to make:validation of existence. I do not dispute the fact that there are set of grammar structures and words that are different from Standard American English. I acknowledge they exist and are often referred to as “Black English” or “Ebonics” (they are in quotations because I am referring to them as titles). I do not think many people doubt the existence of these words.
But is it a language? This is a matter of terminology. Is Ebonics being classified correctly? I think this is where people struggle. Terminology is important, so let’s examine Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary Definitions.
Language – 1 a : the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community b (1) : audible, articulate, meaningful sound as produced by the action of the vocal organs (2) : a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings
Dialect– a : a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language <the Doric dialect of ancient Greek> b : one of two or more cognate languages <French and Italian are Romance dialects> c : a variety of a language used by the members of a group <such dialects as politics and advertising — Philip Howard> d : a variety of language whose identity is fixed by a factor other than geography (as social class) <spoke a rough peasant dialect>
Pidgin – a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages
creole – not capitalized : a language that has evolved from a pidgin but serves as the native language of a speech community [SIDE NOTE: Look up the full definition of Creole. It first applied to white people born in the colonies.]
Gullah – an English-based creole spoken by the Gullahs that is marked by vocabulary and grammatical elements from various African languages
Accent – a : to pronounce with accent : stress b : to mark with a written or printed accent
Ebonics is definitely not an accent. Perhaps it started out as a pidgin – during the times of colonialism and the slave trade in America there were many languages spoken and it was important for many slaves to communicate with one another in languages the slave masters could not understand. Some of those pidgins led to several types of creoles and gullahs. But Ebonics is much more than a gullah, as the full definition restricts it to only a few Southern states in the US. A creole is also somewhat distinct to an area, Louisiana, and Ebonics is spoken in a larger area than that.
So it’s really down to dialect or language. A dialect is a subset of a language. A language is specific, yet quite broad. Ebonics does fit the definition of language, but I’m still hesitant. I’m leaning towards dialect. It’s really the last part of the definition that is tipping the scale, “a variety of language whose identity is fixed by a factor other than geography (as social class)”. I certainly do not mean to equate Merriam-Webster’s example of a peasant dialect to Ebonics or that Ebonics and those who speak it are somehow considered to be a lower class. I mean to say that Ebonics is unrestricted by geography, instead, its identity is fixed to “race”.
I’m not completely convinced that just anyone can speak Ebonics, which is why I still think of it more of a dialect than a language right now. Dialects are the local languages. The languages of the people. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ebonics.
There has always been a societal difference in the common dialects spoken in the small villages and the standard languages in the big cities or at universities. As a teacher, it’s my job to teach you the standard language. I’m here to help you understand the lessons written in literature and give you a proper education. You pay enough in taxes or tuition, let me teach it to you.
Language is constantly evolving and perhaps one day the dialect known as Ebonics will become a full-fledged language. It happened to Cape Dutch, I mean, Afrikaans.
For more information, please read the article that inspired my post: Is Black English a dialect or a language?