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This is not a new term — the earliest reference I can find is from 1975, and it is said to be older still — but it has until now been a specialist one among some writers for what mainstream linguists prefer to call the Black English Vernacular or African-American Vernacular English and has not commonly been found in dictionaries. The word is a rather infelicitous blend of Ebony, a near-synonym for “Black”, and phonics, “the science of sound or of spoken sounds”; it is as much a political as a linguistic term. It is used to emphasise the distinctive grammar and vocabulary of African-American speech, which, it is argued, derive at least in part from various Niger-Congo African languages and are a relic of slavery. Whether Ebonics is a dialect of English, a creole or a separate language is open to argument, though the first of these is the received view. It has suddenly hit the headlines world-wide as a result of the decision by the Oakland School Board in California in December 1996 to recognise Ebonics as a separate linguistic entity whose speakers need assistance in becoming fluent in standard American English.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 11 Jan 1997