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Ebonics is a term that was originally intended and sometimes used for the language of all people of African ancestry, or for that of Black North American people; since 1996 it has been largely used to refer to African American Vernacular English (distinctively nonstandard Black United States English), asserting the independence of this from (standard) English. The term became widely known in the U.S. in 1996 due to a controversy over its use by the Oakland School Board.


Original usage

What is claimed to be the initial mention of "Ebonics" was made by the psychologist[1] Robert Williams in a discussion with linguist Ernie Smith (as well as other language scholars and researchers) that took place in a conference on "Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child", held in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973.[2][3] In 1975, the term appeared within the title and text of a book edited and co-written by Williams, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. Williams there explains it:

A two-year-old term created by a group of black scholars, Ebonics may be defined as "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, idiolects, and social dialects of black people" especially those who have adapted to colonial circumstances. Ebonics derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness.[4]

Other writers have since emphasized how the term represents a view of the language of Black people as African rather than European.[5] The term was not obviously popular even among those who agreed with the reason for coining it: it is little used even within Williams's Ebonics book, in which "Black English" is the far more common name.[6]

John Baugh has stated[7] that the term Ebonics is used in four ways by its Afrocentric proponents. It may (i) be "an international construct, including the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade";[8] (ii) refer to the languages of the African diaspora as a whole;[9] or it may refer to what is normally regarded as a variety of English: either (iii) it "is the equivalent of black English and is considered to be a dialect of English" (and thus merely an alternative term for AAVE), or (iv) it "is the antonym of black English and is considered to be a language other than English" (and thus a rejection of the notion of "African American Vernacular English" but nevertheless a term for what others term AAVE, viewed as an independent language and not a mere ethnolect).[10]

In an exclusively US context

Ebonics remained a little-known and little-remarked term until 1996; it does not appear in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, over a decade after the word was coined, and it was not used by linguists.[11]

In 1996, the term became widely known in the U.S. owing to a controversy over a decision by the Oakland School Board to denote and recognize the primary language (or sociolect or ethnolect) of African American children attending school, and thereby to facilitate the teaching of standard English.[12] Thereafter, Ebonics seems to have become little more than an alternative term for African American Vernacular English, although one emphasizing its claimed African roots and independence from English, a term linked with the nationally discussed controversy over the decision by the Oakland School Board, and one avoided by most linguists.[13]


  1. ^ For Williams's background as a writer on issues related to IQ, see Baugh (2000:16). Baugh (2000) also flatly states (p, 18) that "Williams is not a linguist".
  2. ^ Williams (1997); quoted in Baugh (2000:2).
  3. ^ For conference details, see Baugh (2000:15).
  4. ^ Williams (1975:vi), quoted in Green (2002:7), and Baugh (2000:15). Unfortunately there is something amiss with each reproduction of what Williams writes, and also possible incompatibility between the two. Green has a couple of what appear to be minor typing errors (whether Williams's or her own, and anyway corrected above following Baugh) but otherwise presents the text as above: an unexplained quotation ("the linguistic and paralinguistic people") within the larger quotation. Baugh does not present the material outside this inner quotation but instead presents the latter (not demarcated by quotation marks) within a different context. He describes this as part of a statement to the US Senate made at some unspecified time after 1993, yet also attributes it (or has Williams attribute part of it) to of Williams's book.
  5. ^ For example, Smith (1998:55–7); quoted in Green (2002:7–8).
  6. ^ Baugh (2000:19).
  7. ^ Baugh (2000:74–5); he puts the four in a different order.
  8. ^ Williams (1975) and Williams (1997), as summarized in Baugh's words.
  9. ^ Blackshire-Belay (1996).
  10. ^ The equivalent, Tolliver-Weddington (1979); the antonym, Smith (1992) and Smith (1998); both as summarized in Baugh's words.
  11. ^ Baugh (2002:12), citing O'Neil (1998).
  12. ^ Green (2002:222). Its use in the context of education in reading, often involving the pedagogic approach called phonics, may have helped mislead people into thinking that the phonics from which the word Ebonics is partly derived has this meaning.
  13. ^ For linguists' reasons for this avoidance, see for example, Green (2000:7–8).


  • Baugh, John (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512046-9. 
  • Blackshire-Belay, Carol Aisha (1996), "The location of Ebonics within the framework of the Afrocological paradigm", Journal of Black Studies 27 (1): 5–23 
  • Green, Lisa J. (2002), African American English: A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-89138-8 
  • O'Neil, Wayne (1998), "If Ebonics isn't a language, then tell me, what is?", in Perry, Theresa, The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children, Boston: Beacon, ISBN 0807031453 
  • Smith, Ernie (1992), "African American learning behavior: A world of difference", in Dreywer, Philip, Reading the World: Multimedia and multicultural learning in today's classroom, Claremont, CA: Claremont Reading Conference 
  • Smith, Ernie (1998), "What is Black English? What is Ebonics?", in Perry, Theresa, The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children, Boston: Beacon, ISBN 0807031453 
  • Tolliver-Weddington, Gloria, ed. (1979), "Ebonics (Black English): Implications for Education", Journal of Black Studies (special issue) 9 (4) 
  • Williams, Robert (1975). Ebonics: The true language of black folks. St Louis, MO: Institute of Black Studies. 
  • Williams, Robert (28 January 1997). "Ebonics as a bridge to standard English". St. Louis Post-Dispatch: pp. 14. 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



Blend of ebony and phonics. Ebonics is the African American's linguistic memory of African languages. Ebonics was coined by Robert L. Willams Ph.D. in 1973 and published in his book: Ebonics: The True Language of Black folks.

Proper noun



Ebonics (uncountable) singular

  1. African American Vernacular English.


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