Black psychologists got a crash course Saturday in the West African origins of black American English and were urged to keep up the fight to have American schools recognize its linguistic value.
“We want to remove the stigma that the language our kids speak is a deficient language,” said psychologist Robert Williams, the man who coined the word “ebonics.”
Williams - known for his work to identify and erase racism from standardized intelligence testing - said the public outcry when the school board of Oakland, Calif., voted last year to recognize ebonics was based on ignorance.
He told members of the Association of Black Psychologists that decades of linguistics studies show ebonics resulted from combining English vocabulary with African language structure and does not constitute grammatically incorrect speech. He compared it with the evolution of English hundreds of years ago from a combination of Latin and French vocabulary and German grammar.
“Our language is rich,” Williams said of ebonics, the term he created by combining “ebony” and “phonics.”
Critics slammed the Oakland school district’s recognition of ebonics as “dumbing-down” education by legitimizing slang. The controversy even reached Congress, where hearings were held, and the Oakland lawyer who drafted the resolution bringing ebonics into the classroom later resigned.
Williams argued Saturday that the 70 to 90 percent of African-American children who speak ebonics should be taught it has a legitimate linguistic heritage instead of being placed in remedial English classes.
“We want to make it important to correct this discrimination against African-American children,” Williams said. “What you need to do is teach the child how to move from ebonics to standard English.”
Ernie Smith, a professor of linguistics at California State University at Fullerton for nearly a decade, said teaching ebonics’ origins could help children understand differences from standard English.
That way, Smith said, “You get to know something else besides mimicry.”
Tracing back at least 50 years of linguistic study, Smith showed the black psychologists ebonics’ basis in West African languages.
For instance, grammatically correct English sentences must have a subject and a verb. West African sentence structure includes an alternative construct known as topic and comment.
So does ebonics, as in the phrase “My sister, she smart.”
In correct English, that formulation lacks a verb. But the sentence is correct when analyzed from the African grammatical perspective, in which “my sister” is the topic and “she smart” the comment, Smith said.