Linguistic Society of America (LSA) Resolution on the Oakland “Ebonics” Issue

There are people in the USA identifying themselves as indigenous. If they are indigenous to the land known as America, how did they come to have Ebonics as their language? Why do they have African grammatical roots to their English verbs? Here we present a statement made by the Linguistic Society of America on the issue of Ebonics to clarify the issue.

Drafted by John R. Rickford

3 January 1997: Approved by members attending the 71st Annual Business Meeting, Chicago Sheraton, Chicago, Illinois

1 July 1997 : Adopted by LSA membership in a mail ballot

Whereas there has been a great deal of discussion in the media and among the American public about the l8 December l996 decision of the Oakland School Board to recognize the language variety spoken by many African American students and to take it into account in teaching Standard English, the Linguistic Society of America, as a society of scholars engaged in the scientific study of language, hereby resolves to make it known that:

a. The variety known as “Ebonics,” “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), and “Vernacular Black English” and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems—spoken, signed, and written—are fundamentally regular. The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as “slang,” “mutant,” ” lazy,” “defective,” “ungrammatical,” or “broken English” are incorrect and demeaning.

b. The distinction between “languages” and “dialects” is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones. For example, different varieties of Chinese are popularly regarded as “dialects,” though their speakers cannot understand each other, but speakers of Swedish and Norwegian, which are regarded as separate “languages,” generally understand each other. What is important from a linguistic and educational point of view is not whether AAVE is called a “language” or a “dialect” but rather that its systematicity be recognized.

c. As affirmed in the LSA Statement of Language Rights (June l996), there are individual and group benefits to maintaining vernacular speech varieties and there are scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity. For those living in the United States there are also benefits in acquiring Standard English and resources should be made available to all who aspire to mastery of Standard English. The Oakland School Board’s commitment to helping students master Standard English is commendable.

d. There is evidence from Sweden, the US, and other countries that speakers of other varieties can be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. From this perspective, the Oakland School Board’s decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound.

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