Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Understanding Black English (Part II)

David James Fretz

David James Fretz, a graduate student in education at the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, concludes the analysis of West African linguistic patterns that have developed through the last few centuries by African Americans into what is now popularly called "Black English". The first part of this article was published in the October 7 issue.
Niger-Kordofanian languages do not inflect verbs to express tense or person. Instead, monosyllabic "markers" are employed to indicate various aspects of reality, aspects which in English are expressed via the use of verbs. These "aspect markers" have been given such English titles as the "habitual", "perfective", and "remote time" aspect markers (and there are several others), the titles reflecting the action-related nuance that the marker connotes.

In the Ebonics sentence "Dat man he be reading", both "he" and "be" are neither pronoun or verb, but are in fact each aspect markers. Unlike verbs, no inflection of either ever occurs, either in relation to person or to tense.

The specific function of the "be" marker, for instance, can be seen in a comparison of the following sentences: "Dat man he here" and "Dat man he be here". The "be" marker is the "habitual" aspect marker, and it is used to denote the action of long duration or repetition. Hence the first sentence might then be translated into SAE as "That man is here" and the second as "That man is always here". To the SAE speaker with no insight into Ebonics, the two sentences may appear to have identical meanings, and the structural differences presumed to be the result of an inability or unwillingness to learn the basic rules of English syntax; an ominously flawed perception.

Ebonics speakers, of course, possess the same comprehension of basic syntactical rules as do speakers of English. Consider, for instance, the following Ebonics sentence pairs: "Dat man he be waitin fo me ev'ry night" and "Dat man he waitin fo me right now". It would make no sense (would be "incorrect") for an Ebonics speaker to say "Dat man he be waiting fo me right now". Other examples include "He done gone" where "done" is the "completive" marker, and "He been gone", "been" being the "remote time" marker.

Pronouns In Ebonics, as in other Niger-Kordofanian languages, a distinction is made between singular and plural second-person pronouns - as opposed to SAE, where one pronoun is used for both situations (ie. "you" as in "All of you" and "You alone"). In Ebonics the terms "you all" and "you uns" have been developed to supply a second-person plural pronoun. These two phrases have, incidentally, been subsequently adopted by English speaking white American Southerners.

No distinction is made in Niger- Kordofanian tongues between pronouns which in SAE would have possessive or subjective forms. Hence the Ebonics "Dem boys" for "the boys".

Absence of "if" There is no Niger-Kordofanian equivalent to the English word "if". Hence the English Ebonics sentence "I asked if he did it" translates to the Ebonics "I ass did he do it".

It is these syntactical differences that linguistically distinguish Ebonics from English, and conclusively establish it as an independent language. Nevertheless, several objections are typically raised to this idea.

The most confusing aspect involved with the acceptance of Ebonics as a separate language is, of course, its mutual intelligibility with English. Ebonics sentences, one might argue, may sound strange to native SAE speakers, but they are perfectly understandable.

Surely, it may be objected, if one person can understand what another has spoken, the two must in some way share a common language. This, of course, is not necessarily true, as mutual intelligibility is not a tool of linguistic taxonomy.

Surely, it may be objected, if one person can understand what another has spoken, the two must in some way share a common language. This of course is not necessarily true, as mutual intelligibility is not a tool of linguistic taxonomy. German and Norwegian, for instance, are distinct languages, yet they are mutually intelligible. The spoken English of England's Blackburn region is completely unintelligible to English speakers not from Blackburn, yet it is still English.

The key to language variance lies not in vocabulary, but in syntax. German and Norwegian have different syntaxes, Blackburnian English and SAE the same. (Also note that Ebonics sentences may only appear to be unintelligible to SAE speakers. Consider, for instance, unperceived meaning of the "Dat here" the uninformed SAE speaker will fail to comprehend the be-marker's implication of habituality.)

It might also be supposed that the ethnolinguistic theory is a linguistic technicality, of no practical significance. To deny the significance of the differing English and Ebonics syntaxes is to deny the stated linguistic and psychological truth that language (ie. syntax) is of high importance in the shaping of an individual's world perspective and, perhaps, behaviour. Beyond this, the ethno-linguistic theory is important in that it substantiates the validity not only of Ebonics speech patterns, but also of the linguistic abilities of its speakers.

This is especially important to those Ebonics speakers who may have brought in to racist theories ascribing supposedly inferior "Black English" speech patterns, or the perceived lack thereof, to a more developing inferiority of intellectual development.

Finally, it might be argued that some of the features supposedly unique to Ebonics are to be found in the speech of SAE users, particularly white American Southerners, and were secondarily adopted by blacks; in other words, that Ebonics is still essentially dialectical.

The occurrence of Ebonics features in the speech of English-speaking American Southerners has, however, as in the case of "you all" and "you uns", been demonstrated by linguistic historians to be due to the adoption of Ebonics traits by White Southerners, and not the other way round. It is to be recalled that the offspring of many white Southerners were raised by black servants, and often learned to speak Ebonics or Ebonics phrases from their "mammy's" knee.

Ebonics has survived intact since the days of slave importation in an otherwise English speaking culture owing to the peculiar economic, social and cultural isolation foisted off on the vast majority of African-Americans. Due to subsequent improvements in the status of blacks in the United States, the survival of Ebonics is in doubt. As the process of integration continues, true Ebonics will undoubtedly become much rarer. And, in fact, for some time now Ebonics has not been synonymous with the speech of the entire African-American population, a major, perhaps majority, percentage of which uses SAE as a primary language.

Many ways of dealing with the Ebonics phenomenon have been suggested, ranging from complete eradication to an appreciation of cultural differences and anthropologists, the status quo. Neither of these solutions is in the best interests of anyone. The first is irrational, paranoid and perhaps, in some cases, racist; the second, though at first glance possibly appealing, would only perpetuate the disabling language barrier that presently exists between SAE and Ebonics users. (Interestingly enough, "appreciation of cultural differences" is, in South Africa, a frequently given rationalisation of the apartheid system.)

The most logical approach is to encourage Ebonics speakers to adopt English as a second language in the native Spanish manner of, for example, the majority of the United States' speakers. U.S. federal law requires for speakers of foreign languages, funding which has been denied the speakers of Ebonics.

The main pragmatic effect of the recognition of the true nature of the Ebonics phenomenon should be a heightened awareness and more accurate and sophisticated understanding of the speech and culture of its speakers. Whenever citizens, politicians, educators, psychologists, linguists approach sociologists and Ebonics it is incumbent upon them to realize that they are dealing with a manner of speech as fundamentally different from English as Ibo, Kongo, Bantu or Twi.

talking drums 1985-10-21 Azumah The two minute wonder