Date: Sat, 21 Dec 1996 15:12:01 -0800
From: (Leanne Hinton) Subject: Black English
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There has been so much misinformation being promulgated about the Oakland Ebonics resolution that I felt compelled to respond. Here's a short editorial I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

What I did not approach in the editorial is the issue of whether Black English Vernacular should be called a different language or a dialect of English. While we linguists may feel compelled to use our own technical definitions of "dialects" and "languages" based on tests of mutual intelligibility, we are also aware that politics plays a big role in as well in whether linguistic varieties are defined as separate languages or as dialects of a single language, and often the political issues hold sway over the technical. Whether Black English is defined as a dialect of English or a separate language can have important political and financial implications, but it would not change the pedagogy that Oakland has decided to adopt.

Leanne Hinton


The furor over Oakland's recently-adopted resolution regarding Ebonics is based in large part on these issues: (1) there is a misunderstanding that the Oakland school system wants to teach Black English in the schools; (2) there is a sense of outrage among some that a stigmatized variety of English would be treated as a valid way of talking.

When I attended the school board meeting where the Ebonics resolution was adopted, all discussion in support of the resolution, by board members, parents, and teachers, was centered around the importance of teaching standard English to children. This resolution is not about teaching Black English, but about the best way of teaching standard English. The children the board is concerned about have learned Black English at home, a linguistic variety that has many differences from standard English. In order to teach them standard English, the board has rightfully concluded that teachers need to understand and be able to teach children the differences between these two linguistic varieties. It has also rightfully concluded that Black English is not just some random form of "broken-down English" that is intrinsically inferior to standard English, but is rather a speech variety with its own long history, its own logical rules of grammar, discourse practices that are traceable to West African languages, and a vibrant oral literature that is worthy of respect. Black English has also been one of the major contributors of vocabulary to American English in general.

The notion that there is something just plain "bad" about nonstandard varieties of English is so deeply imbedded in the minds of many people that they tend to believe that children speak Black English out of contrariness, and need to be corrected by punishment. Educators have known better than that for a long time now, and don't want to be disrespectful of African American childrens' way of speech; but that very respect has left them without a way of teaching standard English. The method being embraced now by the Oakland School Board fills that void. By escaping the trap of thinking of nonstandard Black English as a set of "errors," and instead treating it as really is, a different system, not a wrong one, standard English can be taught by helping children develop an awareness of the contrast between their two speech varieties, and learn to use one without losing their pride in the other.

We should applaud the Oakland School Board for a sensible decision, and stop bothering them with all this bad-mouthing, jive, guff, and hullaballoo (four calques and loanwords that come to American English from African languages via Black English); and let them get on with the task of implementing their new policy.

Leanne Hinton
Professor of Linguistics
University of California at Berkeley

Leanne Hinton, Professor
Dept. of Linguistics
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2650
fax: (510) 643-5688
phone: (510) 643-7621