CoastLine: Linguistic Profiling Still Lives, Despite African American English's Legitimacy

Jun 10, 2015

The term “Ebonics” was coined in the early 1970s as a way of describing language patterns used by some African Americans. 

By the 1990s, a school system in Oakland, California passed a resolution adopting Ebonics as a native language.  Not long after that, a national controversy erupted.  One Senator at the time, Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, called the acceptance of Ebonics one of the most absurd examples of political correctness he’d ever seen. 

A couple of decades later, the debate is still alive.  The terminology, however, has shifted to African American Vernacular English.  Sociolinguists say the language patterns that make up this kind of English are not only as structured as so-called standard English – they’re also complex and quite legitimate. 

That’s the crux of our exploration on this edition of CoastLine – along with the implications for people who do speak what is now called African American Vernacular English or AAVE.

In-studio guests:

Frankie Roberts, Executive Director, LINC, Inc.  Leading Into New Communities teaches young African-American men how to navigate white, middle-class American culture.

Walt Wolfram is a Sociolinguist at North Carolina State University and a pioneer in the field of African American Vernacular English.  He is the author of more than a dozen books on dialect including The Development of African American English, Dialects in Schools and Communities, and American English:  Dialects and Variation.  He is also the Director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project.


Editor's Note:  This version has been corrected to reflect the correlation of Swedish with Sweden.

When a California school district officially recognized Ebonics as a native language in the 1990s, a national controversy erupted. 

Today, it’s now referred to in linguistic circles as African American Vernacular English.  Decades later, those who use the language still face the consequences of linguistic profiling. 

A language is often associated with a geographic area:  French is the language of France, Swedish of Sweden, German of Germany.  But Walt Wolfram, a sociolinguist at NC State and a pioneer in the study of African American English, says this language has all the legitimacy of any other complex linguistic system.  Even the stigmatization of certain components are essentially random decisions, says Wolfram. For example, “ax” versus “ask” when posing a question:

Walt Wolfram:  "So 'ax', for example, is sort of this icon of stigma despite the fact that in the history of the English language, the 'ask / ax' actually resulted from a transfer.  The original verb was axiom.  So it was originally pronounced as 'ax' not 'ask'.  And it was the change in the English language that gave it the 'ask' pronunciation.  So there are all these sort of curiosities of history which show how arbitrary language is."

Frankie Roberts:  "In cases like that, we create those illusions or those artificial barriers because I’m looking for a reason to not like you, to not accept you, to not be equal to you."

Frankie Roberts is Executive Director of LINC, a local nonprofit that teaches young African-American males to navigate what he calls white, middle class society through codeswitching.  His key point:  speaking African American English is in no way inferior to the standard form.