It can be difficult to discuss a topic when you are not even sure which term to use when discussing it
It can be difficult to discuss a topic when you are not even sure which term to use when discussing it. In the case of African American Vernacular English, the different terminology can be confusing and sometimes offensive if great care is not put into discerning which term should be used, even though they have all been used to denote the same variety of English. “African American Vernacular”, “Ebonics”, and “Black English” are three of the many different terms that have been used to represent the same variety of English. The significance of learning about the origins, being educated on controversies, being informed on features and traits, and learning about some of the social stigmas of these terms are all imperative to a full understanding of the history of this semantic field. It is important to distinguish these terms from each other and recognize them as individual standings, even though they share certain characteristics, because they each have unique origins, meanings and features.
The origins of these terms are not concrete, leaving three main theories as possibilities. According to The Development of African American Vernacular English, by Kati Karvonen, the first theory suggests that African American Vernacular descends from West African and Niger-Congo languages, due to similar grammatical features within the languages. This “Ebonics” view suggests that African American Vernacular English is a separate language. The second theory that Kati mentions is that African American Vernacular English is a form of Creole, the “Creolist” position. This view acknowledges the major differences between white vernacular English and African American English languages but that the two are beginning to show similarities. The last theory represents the “Anglicist” view, where African American Vernacular English originated by black slaves learning English from their white English owners (Karvonen). These different theories only scratch the surface of the complicated matter of why so many different terms have been used to describe the same variety. The motivations for the use of each term can be clarified by looking at the explanations for a few of the changes.
Certain events throughout history have had the ability to spark a social change for justice. According to Ernie Smith from the journal article, Ebonics is not Black English, an example of this sort of event would be the civil rights era, which caused the term designated for the slave descendants’ language to change from “Negro English”, to “Black English” (Smith). Just as this change first started to begin, many more changes were soon to come. The term “Black English” now represents blacks of different linguistic backgrounds and origins, for example the Gullah and Geechee languages, which have ties to not only West Africa but the Caribbean Basin also. The term Ebonics was first used in 1973 by black scholars, from a combination of the words “ebony”, meaning black, and “phonics”, referring to speech (Smith). This term is used when talking about linguistic information that has connections with African roots, not just black people from any sort of region or geographical origin. Social justice, debates and controversies are what fuel a sometimes-necessary change.
Possibly the most well-known controversy and debate pertaining the topic of the African American Vernacular English is the Ebonics Controversy. According to “The Ebonics Controversy: An Educational and Clinical Dilemma”, a journal article written by Harry N. Seymour, this controversy happened in December 1996, when the Oakland School Board of Education adopted a policy in which all children in the school district would be proficient in Standard American English. A major conflict within this controversy was how to teach and implement the transition for children to learn Standard American English. It must be understood that African American children arrive at school with a complete language, not a broken English spoken by the uneducated (Harry N. Seymour). In the end, the degree that students end up using Standard American English is their choice and will depend on various external and internal factors. An external factor that will influence the use of Standard American English are teachers and educational staff.
Teachers and other administrative staff in schools need to understand cultural differences among African American children when they are facing things like standardized testing. The study of phonology in the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed the differences between African American Vernacular English and white varieties of English, exposing the biases African-American children faced when reading and taking standardized tests (Mufwene). Cultural and linguistic diversity awareness is vital in the process of analyzing whether a student has a disorder versus a difference in speech. A speech-language pathologist in a school will need to be educated in the prominent features of Black English to decide whether an individual is in need of speech services or if it is just a linguistic difference because of their African American Vernacular. Being educated in the ability to identify the patterns of speech and language not attributed to the African American Vernacular is important to recognize the motivation for the separation of the African American Vernacular English from the Standard American English.
A select set of features and traits have been studied and identified among the African American Vernacular. It can be very confusing when the clarity of the meaning of words is muddled. A description of the shared characteristics of the following terms is to understand why these terms cannot be viewed as separate languages. Even though these terms signify different periods and developments of the same variety of the English language. The common characteristics that these terms share are the only things that tie them together because the origins of the individual terms carry a very exclusive and particular history to them. “African American Vernacular”, “Ebonics”, and “Black English” share many phonological and grammatical features, as well as the same social stigmas, because all of these terms represent the same variety of English.