| 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
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
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
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."