Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Ebonics and Phonics

Naw wha sayin’? It’s a phrase you’ll hear my people utter in every rap group interview or music show acceptance speech ever to hit the air waves. It’s the black version of “um.” But the simple fact is, no, most of us don’t know what the users of this phrase are saying because:

Usually they haven’t said a damn thing
What they have said is inarticulate, garbled, lacking in syntax, and grammar
What they are speaking is Ebonics

Ebonics is defined as a nonstandard form of American English characteristically spoken by African Americans in the United States. The Urban Dictionary offers a few more definitions and some pretty lively (and salty) examples like, "Yo G, you frontin me?" "He workin'." "Don't be tellin' me dat I can't talk good cuz I speak ebonics."- and “Why you all up in my grill yo?

When I was thinking of a title for this piece I toyed with “It’s Not White, It’s Right.” That’s what my sister, a high school principal, tells her students. They and a lot of African Americans have a thing about speaking English correctly as they consider it a submission to white culture – a culture they were excluded from for centuries by way of slavery and segregation. I get that. TOTALLY. Ebonics is black America’s way of verbally flipping the bird to white America.

I may shock some people with the following confession, but I actually love Ebonics. It is both its own kind of poetry and descriptive prose. There is much about black language that is decidedly cool. It has influenced American culture in ways not imagined a few hundred years ago. It has a permanent place in pop culture. Millions of Americans across the country were saying “Whazzup,” using “izzle” as a suffix and calling their best friend “Home Boy” or “Yo.” Oh, and I cannot forget the ubiquitous “bling.” I applaud these creative additions to our language. It keeps the English language dynamic and just plain fun.

However, there comes a time when one must move on and develop skills that will catapult one to that pinnacle where dreams, goals and drive meet. One of those skills is learning to talk to a broader audience by speaking “standard” English.

I recently attended a live broadcast of a local radio show. The topic was how Baltimore might benefit from the stimulus package. The show host and his producers included a youth activist on the panel. While I give my young brother major props (uh, that’s ‘hood slang or Ebonics for kudos) for working in his community to fight for the recognition of the state of young people in our city, he completely blew his opportunity to attract and engage a larger audience in his cause. He was completely unprepared to talk to people outside of his peer group and have them understand his points. Others on the panel stepped in to make his points for him. You could see them wincing and clamoring to dive in to help this brother float in an unfamiliar sea of listeners who did not reside in the ‘hood.

From my academic studies in communications, I’ve learned not to block out the message because of the messenger, but there are many who will not give someone they perceive as inarticulate a chance to drive their points home, and that is a shame. It’s also the truth.

Learning standard English is not just a challenge for some black folk. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of television, film and radio personalities who have needed to drop a regional accent whether it was a Southern, Midwestern or Boston tonality, in order to progress their careers. Fran Drescher comes to mind. Yes, she’s made a career from her accent but when she wants to be taken seriously, the accent is all but gone.

Most upwardly mobile blacks will tell you that they are bi-lingual. We are able to speak Ebonics when with friends and family, but when we step outside the familial embrace of our neighborhoods, we know how to talk the “talk.” Being in the communications business as a producer and writer, I know the importance of being able to sway people of all walks of life with language that motivates them to do what you want or need them to do. Trust me, I would never have been hired as a writer and producer if I had spoken like a yo-ski – and I mean that term affectionately.

Back in the old days (when I was a kid umpteen years ago) school systems taught phonics where one learned to associate letters with their sound values. I remember learning the different sounds each letter can represent like the “a” in “cat” as opposed to the “a” in “cave” or the “c” in “cave” versus the “c” in “certainly.” In short, I learned how to read and talk. My parents were STICKLERS for proper pronunciation, enunciation and grammar. With the expectations of my parents and the instruction of my teachers, I am proud to say that I feel comfortable speaking before anyone and during my varied career I’ve had to – from former Secretary of State Alexander Haig to visiting dignitaries from other countries to urban teens.

So I’m definitely not saying to forgo Ebonics. It is a colorful (pardon the pun) part of American English. What I am saying is that those who only speak Ebonics would do well to study the outstanding oratory skills of great speakers like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Because a little skinny, bi-racial kid – the grandson of a goat herder – learned to move the masses by making language an art, and became the leader of the free world.

...the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.
-James Earl Jones


  1. I really dislike the very concept of Ebonics. I think it reflects poorly on the user. I think it's an inarticulate way of communicating that holds many people back.

  2. I would agree with you when those people know only that one way to communicate. However, black language, Ebonics... whatever you want to call it has had a huge influence on the English language. As I mentioned before, where would we be without the word "bling"?

  3. I appreciate the quote from James Earl Jones, who not only has a fantastic speaking voices, but used to stutter as a child.

    I understand the idea of being "bilingual" in just one language. When I'm among Mexican cousins or in Mexican-American communities, my Spanglish accent comes out. Yet at other times, I can't even call it up if I try. That's not only a survival skill for success, it's also a way to connect with people: singing along with the music that's playing.

    I also study Spanish and Chinese, and during my studies I've discovered that language truly is an expression of culture. The way people put words together, the types of things they will or won't say, some concepts that don't translate: all are indications that different cultures have unique ways of viewing their world. I think learning more than one language truly does broaden the mind.

    However, I agree that, if we want our children to be successful in America, we should make sure that, whatever else they learn, they also learn to speak clear, grammatically correct English.