An Army, A Navy, and Ebonics

1. Introduction
2. The Ebonics controversy
2.1 Declaration of a separate language
2.2 Bilingual education funding
2.3 Classroom teaching and Ebonics
2.4 Summary and comment
3. Afro-American languages and dialects
3.1 Black English: the creolist position
3.2 Black English: the dialectologist position
3.3 Toward a synthesis
3.4 On the issue of African influence
3.5 Summary and comment
4. Language, identity, and politics
4.1 Obtaining linguistic recognition
4.2 Prospects
4.3 Summary and comment
5. General summary and conclusion


1. Introduction
Many people who try to get acquainted with linguistics find the terminology frustrating. There are, for sure, a lot of terms, and they are not always consistently used. Moreover, many of the terms come into use quickly and go out of use just as quickly. To some extent, these problems are hard or even impossible to avoid. When so much about human language remains only partially understood, it should come as no surprise that new attempts to understand will succeed only partially--if at all. Even basic terms such as language and dialect are subject to innumerable controversies. The common textbook definition of dialects as mutually intelligible varieties of the same language is useful, but linguists often point out problems with the definition. For example, just how intelligible do dialects have to be? On the other hand, critics of the definition have not succeeded in providing a widely accepted replacement. Another problem with the language/dialect distinction is that history shows that today's dialect can become tomorrow's language. One such case is Macedonian (which will be briefly discussed in section 4 of this paper). Facts such as this make it easy to see why linguists have facetiously defined the term language as a dialect with an army and a navy.
The recent controversy in the United States over Ebonics also illustrates some of the problems that can arise in attempts to distinguish languages and dialects, and it provides a useful opportunity to consider just how it is that a dialect might become a language. The following discussion first considers some of the history of the Ebonics issue and then looks at the history of what is called Black English by some and Ebonics by others (not to mention still other terms, as will be seen). After these historical considerations, the paper will turn to the issue of how a dialect can become a language.

2. The Ebonics controversy
Before December 18, 1996 few people had heard the term Ebonics, although it has been around for over twenty years, as seen in a collection of articles edited by Robert Williams (1975) with the title Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. By New Year's Day of 1997, however, the term had became known to many people. The coverage in the Washington, D.C. newspapers, the media that I myself had access to in late December, emphasized three claims: 1) that on December 18 the School Board of Oakland, California had declared Ebonics to be a separate language; 2) that the School Board would soon submit an application for funding a bilingual education program for speakers of Ebonics to learn English; 3) that actual classroom teaching was to be done in Ebonics.
If news can be defined as breathtaking information, this story was certainly news. The School Board's alleged actions seemed to challenge widely shared assumptions, and so, not surprisingly, the reports in the media led to a furor. Condemnations came quickly, crossing political and racial lines. The Washington Post, a liberal newspaper, carried many articles and letters to the editor condemning the School Board's decision, as did the conservative Washington Times. For a short period, the black liberal Jesse Jackson and the black conservative Thomas Sowell agreed about something (both excoriating the School Board), although Jackson later changed his position. Moreover, the U.S. Secretary of Education, who is a white Democrat, took very little time to declare that no bilingual education funds would be available for an Ebonics program.
Not all of the early reactions were unfavorable, however. Some of the columns and letters in the December issues of the Washington Post expressed sympathy for the School Board's approach, and the coverage in the Post changed somewhat after a resolution passed on