Many language scholars believe that Black English as we know it today originated before the American Revolution in the speech of kidnapped West Africans enslaved in the English-speaking colonies of North America. Picking up the slaveowners’ language
with little or no formal instruction, this theory proposes, these early American slaves created a dialect that combined English vocabulary with the grammar and pronunciation of various African languages.
The characteristics that distinguish African-American English from standard American English include the pronunciation of consonant clusters at the ends of words (“desks” and “tests” become “desses” and “tesses,” for example), the elimination of some third-person singular verb inflections (“He throw the ball.” “She write the book.” “He vote for the candidate.”), and certain distinctive uses of the verb “to be.” Among the latter, perhaps the most emblematic is the frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the “habitual be.” When speakers of standard American English hear the statement “He be reading,” they generally take it to mean “He is reading.” But that’s not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom “He is reading” refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. “He be reading” refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he’s doing it right now.
D’Jaris Coles, a doctoral student in the communication disorders department, and a member of the African-American English research team, gives the hypothetical example of Billy, a well-behaved kid who doesn’t usually get into fights. One day he encounters some special provocation and starts scuffling with a classmate in the school yard. “It would be correct to say that Billy fights,” Coles explains, “but he don’t be fighting.”
Janice Jackson, another team member who is also working on a Ph.D. in communication disorders, conducted an experiment using pictures of Sesame Street characters to test children’s comprehension of the “habitual be” construction. She showed the kids a picture in which Cookie Monster is sick in bed with no cookies while Elmo stands nearby eating cookies. When she asked, “Who be eating cookies?” white kids tended to point to Elmo while black kids chose Cookie Monster. “But,” Jackson relates, “when I asked, ‘Who is eating cookies?’ the black kids understood that it was Elmo and that it was not the same. That was an important piece of information.” Because those children had grown up with a language whose verb forms differentiate habitual action from currently occuring action (Gaelic also features such a distinction, in addition to a number of West African languages), they were able even at the age of five or six to distinguish between the two.
When the Oakland, California, school board announced at the end of 1996 that it wanted to incorporate awareness of Ebonics into its strategy for teaching standard English, the idea was to attune teachers to aspects of Black English that might be unfamiliar to standard English speakers ? to promote an understanding, for example, that the habitual be is something more than a corrupt or incorrect present-tense verb form. But that’s not how the proposal was perceived by the media and the general public. The white syndicated columnist who ridiculed the Oakland board for seeking “to teach English as a second language to African-American children more familiar with hip-hop lingo” typified the scorn and non-comprehension that characterized much public commentary on the proposal. The columnist in question would never, presumably, have published overtly racist epithets, but thought it highly amusing to sneer at an imaginary Ebonics-inspired Hamlet lesson in which the prince’s famous soliloquy opens, “Is you is o’ is you ain’t.” As if white kids in Marin County be speaking Elizabethan English at the mall while black kids in Oakland just be scratching their heads in ignorance. (In fairness to white critics who didn’t get the point, the Oakland Ebonics proposal was also attacked by many black intellectuals, celebrities, and political leaders. They too failed to grasp that the plan was designed not to supplant standard English in the classroom, but rather, in Seymour’s words, “to transition kids from Ebonics to standard American English without denigrating Ebonics.”)
Janice Jackson is especially annoyed and frustrated by commentators who disrespect African-American English by equating it with “street slang or the jargon of the day” instead of recognizing it as a dialect defined by its own coherent grammar and pronunciation rules. “They think it’s the hip-hop talk,” she says. “Yo baby! Tha’s def! Wha’ sup? Hip-hop has about as much to do with African-American English as surfer dude or Valley girl jargon has to do with standard American English. If somebody said, ‘We’re going to teach your kid to speak
standard English,’ nobody would say, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to teach him how to say tubular.’ But when they said African-American English. . . .”
Roeper and Seymour’s research project has certain specific goals defined by the disciplines of linguistics and speech pathology ? to deepen understanding of the mental strategies all children use to figure out the rules of their native languages, and to produce new diagnostic tests that can help identify African-American children who would benefit from speech therapy. Beyond those aims, however, all the researchers hope their work can contribute to the overthrow of the racial cliches and stereotypes that lurk inside traditional, unenlightened attitudes toward Black English. “I think fighting language prejudice is the next battle in the United States,” Roeper says.
Only by moving beyond the deeply ingrained negative attitudes of the past, the speech researchers agree, is it possible to appreciate the multi-faceted subtleties of all human language. “Language is not just a matter of words and sounds and syntax,” says Seymour. “It’s an identity issue, it’s a social issue. It’s very complicated.”