Date: Mon, 13 Jan 1997 12:17:48 -0500
From: Ronald Kephart Subject: Ebonics editorial
Reply-to: Ronald Kephart MIME-version: 1.0
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This is my Ebonics letter to the editor of the Florida Times Union (Jacksonville). It appeared in today's edition. They made up the headline, and also edited me a bit.

Language of a community is determined culturally

As a linguist and anthropologist, I want to comment on the Jan. 5 pro and con articles about Ebonics, also known as Black English and African-American English Vernacular.

The con writer was absolutely correct in saying that Black English is not genetically based. From linguistic science we know that language, as a universal characteristic of human beings, is genetically programmed.

Every human language, including Black English, Japanese, Latin, etc., is a manifestation of this universal genetic endowment.

Which language will be the language of a speech community is determined socially and culturally, not genetically.

The con writer is absolutely wrong in using phrases such as "verbal deformity," and "nothing more than an urban language phenomenon, unique for its limited, enigmatic contexts and its fleeting definitions" to describe Black English.

Linguists have shown that Black English has features which relate it to the Creole languages of the Caribbean and West Africa.

In fact, if we take the structure of sentence predicates, Black English is more like these languages than it is like English. One variety of Black English, known popularly as Gullah but referred to by linguists as Sea Island Creole, is in fact mutually intelligible with Krio, spoken in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

The Oakland School Board's proposal to acknowledge the fact that many children come to the schools speaking and understanding a language variety that has significant differences from English is, in my view, absolutely correct.

For far too long, children (and adults, for that matter) speaking Black English have been labeled as lazy, stupid, or even cognitively deficient.

There is nothing within Black English, as a realization of the human language potential, that is remarkable.

What is truly remarkable is the tenacity with which outdated and racist attitudes toward African Americans and their speech survive in the face of scientific knowledge.

Ronald Kephart
University professor
3482 Maiden Voyage Circle South
Jacksonville, FL 32257
Home: 268-4250
Work: 646-2580

Ron Kephart
University of North Florida