Three Black men talking outside by parked cars. All three are laughing.
Source: Jed Villejo on Unsplash

African-American Vernacular English Is a Legitimate Dialect. Period.

It has its own grammatical structure, usage, and pronunciation rules

African-American Vernacular English, commonly known today as Black English, is a dialect spoken by many Black Americans.

In the 1970s, a group of scholars coined it as Ebonics (a combination of ebony + phonics) with the intention of eliminating the negative connotations attributed to individuals who spoke it.

It is also a dialect fraught with a tumultuous history, as it has often, and wrongfully, been dismissed as an inferior form of Standard English. Black English has also been considered “broken” and “slang,” which contributes to language-based racism that can affect educational and societal advancement for Black people who use it.

African roots

Black English is a legitimate dialect with its own grammatical structure and pronunciation rules. It can be traced to the African languages that were spoken in the United States and parts of the Caribbean as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Enslavers often forced enslaved people to communicate with each other in English, fearing an uprising. However, enslaved people preserved some of the words used in their native tongue if the word could pass as English, giving African roots to many words that are used in English today: bug, dig, jitters, and funky, to name a few.

The Oakland School Board Ebonics resolution

African-American English received media attention in 1996 when the Oakland Unified School District proposed a resolution that it would recognize Black English as a language.

Educators hoped that this would destigmatize the English that was used by many Black students at home, and would help educators receive federal funding that was designated for bilingual education.

The funding would help them teach Standard English by using Black English as a tool in the classroom (very similar to the Spanish/English bilingual education that I received growing up in the southwestern United States).

This created controversy and fierce criticism from politicians and community members. It also garnished a lot of support from others who sought to destigmatize African-American English. Proponents of the resolution, backed by linguists, argued that this was a legitimate language system with consistent grammatical use.

The debate became so heated that the school board eventually backed down from their resolution.

The Ann Arbor decision

Before the Oakland resolution, there was the Ann Arbor decision, another case related to Black English in the classroom.

In 1979, a lawsuit filed on behalf of the children of Martin Luther King Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, alleged that the school was not educating children adequately because they were not recognizing the language spoken by them at home, Black English.

Ultimately, the judge ruled that the school would be responsible for identifying children who spoke Black English, and taking steps to help them learn Standard English.

Linguistic legitimacy

What People Get Wrong About African-American English by Storied

While the Ann Arbor ruling was a win for educators who sought to use Black English as a teaching tool, the prejudice against those who spoke Black English remained present in all spheres of public life.

What most critics failed to acknowledge is that Black English is linguistically recognized and has a grammatical structure that speakers abide by.

Watch What People Get Wrong About African-American English for an incredibly concise breakdown of its history and grammatical structure. The most common example of one of these rules as it contrasts to Standard English is double negation. 

Robert Lowth’s rule against the use of double negatives in a sentence was drilled into me in 6th-grade grammar class. Without education and exposure to other English dialects used in the United States, I grew up thinking that using two negatives in a sentence was just bad English, a very common misconception that fails to recognize that other dialects do not abide by the same rule.

In Black English, double negation is commonly used.

And guess what?

It’s grammatically correct. This is also the case in my native Spanish and other languages such as Ukrainian.

As professional interpreters, we understand that an individual’s language, dialect, and form of expression should always be valued and respected. By learning more about the history of Black English, we can help dismantle the prejudiced views commonly associated with this form of expression and celebrate the contributions it has made to American culture today.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter for more content like this!