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While African American Vernacular English, also known by the modern denomination of Ebonics (and numerous other name variations it has gathered along time) is widely spread among the people of color living inside American borders in present times, the nature of this characteristic pattern of speech is still quite uncertain, given its relatively recent emergence and extension, from a historical point of view.
In this paper, I will attempt to determine a few key factors which could aid in determining, first of all, the origins of AAVE and consequently address the debate as to whether it is spoken and viewed either as a language or a dialect.
On a general scale, the development of Ebonics draws back to the proliferation of African American enslavement by the European colonists. Taking that into consideration, to begin with, I will delve into presenting a short overview of AAVE’s history.
The 1607 settlement in Jamestown, Vriginia seems to play an important part in the process of AAVE’s formation as a creole-based form of speech, marking its starting point, as declared by Rickford in Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. As Rickford puts it, the main argument with Black English history focuses on critics’ different views upon its exact development. Some believe it was largely influenced by the African languages spoken by slaves, whereas others oppose that much of the real African element of Black speech has been lost due to the distress caused by slavery’s terror, and that the true pervasive forms of Ebonics have been adopted from the white indentured workers and peasants that the Africans had come into contact with in America. The reason for this debate is given by the fact that, from what is known, up until around 1690, African population, especially in New England and the Middle colonies, was quite sparse in raportation to the whites, thus leading to the belief that the newly arrived African slaves had managed to appropriate the English spoken by the white indentured servants. He also goes on to state that ‘For many scholars, the central question is not the “Africanness” of the black vernacular, but its “creoleness” — whether it was ever as different from Standard English as the “creole” varieties spoken today in such places as Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados, or whether it was ever influenced by them.
To further explain the previous direct quotation, there is also information about areas such as Jamaica and Suriname in which, by the 1700’s, Africans constituted over 90 percent of the population, marking them as the main regions in which creole languages’ development truly flourished.
Now, although the Africans in the early seventeenth-century American colonies had not arrived there in large enough masses to be able to constitute language variations , creoles still managed to inflitrate, because, between the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Africans were not imported straight form Africa, but from distinct colonies where pidgins and creoles had already begun taking shape.
A key moment which lead to a further concretization of Black speech was the Black population explosion in the eighteenth century, though it was mainly focused in the Southern region. The effects of this steady increase in Black population lead to linguistic acquirements of Blacks from other Blacks, whom, as Rickford points out ‘ may have been speaking highly vernacular dialects themselves’, thus explaining the high impact of African languages in the evolution of AAVE.
Another factor which triggered the formation of specific vernacular terms was the heavy segregation that white people had adopted in order to preserve their dominance. This affected Black speech by creating a rift between it and the language spoken by the Whites, as the segregated race did not want to associate themselves with the same speech model as their prosecutors.
Another definitory moment in the history of not only AAVE, but of the Black race itself, is the rocketing of the slave trade practice during the nineteenth century. In a similar way to the previous century, strongly involving psychological trauma, this period served to further stray Black practices, including speech and ways of living, away from those of their oppressors, resulting in an increased determination to preserve a specific Black way of communication as a form of empowerment.
Other definitory moments for AAVE’s formation during this timeframe are the War of 1812 with Britain, the Civil War between the North and the South and the constitutional abolition of slavery in 1865, all of which contributed to mass migrations, which went on to aid in the construction of a well-blended and concretized form of Ebonics, as Rickford, quoting Don Winford, maintains that “the concentration and intense contact of African Americans of various regional backgrounds in northern and southern cities set the stage for further leveling or convergence among AAVE [African American Vernacular English] varieties, and the emergence of the relatively focused and uniform urban vernacular.”
The mass-movements of the nineteenth century were surpassed and culminated with the ‘Great Migration’ which began in approximately 1916, heightened by America’s participation in World War I, causing an intensification in the need of workforce, especially in the northern regions, hence migration took place in big waves from the south to the north and west, and consequently, from the rural environment to the urban one. This was then followed by series of discriminatory acts towards the blacks for the rest of the twentieth century, which I am not going to detail any further, but it is important to note that, as Rickford states, although Black history carries a great deal of negative aspects, these unfortunate events are what ultimately served to shape the African American identity and community and thus the continual progression of African American Vernacular English, which takes me back to another relevant statement from Rickford’s Spoken Soul: ‘ The fact that Spoken Soul often marks the oppositional identity of blacks vis-à-vis whites and “mainstream culture” is undoubtedly part of the reason for its vibrant existence to this day.”
After a brief introduction into the background of Ebonics, it is finally proper to address one of the most disputed issues concerning this pattern of speech: Is Ebonics a language or a dialect?
In order to establish that, I will mainly refer to an episode of a language specialized podcast, which focuses on this very question.
First and foremost, it is of great importance to determine that Ebonics is, as John Baugh expresses, ‘a complex mixture of European and African languages born of the African slave trade’ as he then goes on to ask himself a question of similar nature to the one of this paper: ‘does Ebonics refer to one language or to more than one language?’.
Both Baugh and the podcast refer to the 1996 Oakland school board controversy when it comes to the public recognition of AAVE. It was once with this event that AAVE had been declared a language of its own by the board of education thus bringing up bold statements from different individuals, including African-Americans themselves, such as Maya Angelou declaring: ‘I’m incensed. The very idea that African-American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening because it can encourage young men and women not to learn Standard English.’
As mentioned in the podcast, such reactions were deemed as misinterpretations of the school board resolution, as it was later more clearly expressed that its aim was to merely ‘transition’ African-American children into speaking Standard English through the use of AAVE. Naturally, the Senate ended up being involved in this issue and a two-hour hearing was held in order to determine whether AAVE was, as Alan Specter is quoted in the podcast ‘a language, a dialect or vernacular speech.’
North Carolina State University linguist, W. Wolfram, cited in the podcast, points out that AAVE has carried many different denominations through time, ranging from Nonstandard Negro Dialect, to Vernacular Black English, to African-American Language and so on. He then proceeds to explain why it is by some addressed as “English” and by others as “language”. According to Wolfram ‘Calling something a language has more status, and the fact of the matter is whether something is a dialect or a language turns out to be a highly political determination. A language is a dialect that has an army.’ This statement points out the effects of Linguistic Subordination, in which, as mentioned in the podcast ‘if a people is racially subordinated, then their language will almost always be as well’.
Thus, while Wolfram suggests that Ebonics does carry the right characteristics and structure to be qualified as a language, its public value as either dialect, language or vernacular speech is largely determined by political and social factors, according to the Principle of Linguistic Subordination.
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