Sociolingüistic factors in the history of american negro dialects; William A Stewart

Turismo # Teachers: hostility. Apartheid. Division. White dialects. Walt Wolfram. Ebonics

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Maybe, the most confusing feature of the B.E (Black English) is the use of the verb to be. For example, when a S.E (Standard English) speaker ask a B.E speaker: “Is she married?”, he would answer: “She been married”. This answer could be interpreted in two different ways. The way the S.E would interpret it would be, that she has been married but not now. It would be correct if the B.E speaker had stressed the been. But if not, the interpretation is wrong, because it would mean that she had married X time ago and is still married.

Another matter is that sometimes the B.E speakers “camouflage” a word, and make the sentence difficult to understand for a person not familiarized with B.E. One example is: “She come telling me I'n (didn't) know what I was talking about”.

One more example of cross communication can be the fact that for the B.E speakers good means bad, and bad means good, so it can be a problem in the communication between standard and non-standard speakers.

The use of ain't in B.E is difficult to understand for the Standard English speakers, and sometimes they don't even now what it means and what's its use. For example, if a B.E speaker says to a S.E speaker “Dey ain't like that”, probably, the S.E speaker would understand “they aren't like that”, just because he doesn't know that ain't is used to negate verbs in their past tense. In this way, the real meaning of this sentence is “they didn't like that”.

The last example I see interesting is the use of done as an auxiliary in constructions as “He done gave up”. The S.E speaker would understand “He has given up”, but the real meaning of the sentence is “he gave up”.


On one hand, there is an hostility from many teachers, administrators and community leaders to this fact (the linguistic correlation of social class and ethnic background), and it's because the description of dialect variation in American communities (particularly in urban centres) is turning out to a disturbing correlation between language behaviour on the one hand and socio-economic and ethnic stratification on the other.

Negro elites don't welcome any evidence of uniform or stable behaviour differences between members of their own group and these of the white-dominated middle class. That is, they don't want to be different, but equal (not the Negro-as-different, but the Negro-as-equal. This fact is quite normal, if we think of the constant isolation suffered by Negroes (from the slavery to the “Apartheid”, going through the constant social isolation”).

I think that they see themselves now in a better situation, that their situation is improving, and they are scared of going back to this condition.

Besides, the statements about dialect differences between Whites and Negroes could be interpreted by white racists as an evidence of Negro cultural backwardness or mental inferiority, or even sized upon by black racists as an evidence of some sort of mythical Negro “soul”


The first important point in the decreolization is the division, in the eighteen-century, into to parts: the unprivileged field hands Negroes and the privileged domestic servant. Although both were still slaves, the privileged ones were “fortunate”, because they had access to “the big house”, with its comforts and “civilization”, and they were close to the “prestigious quality” Whites, with the opportunity to imitate their behaviour (including their speech) and to wear their clothes. In some cases, the privileged Negroes were able to acquire a more standard variety of English than the Creole of the field hands, and those who got an education became speakers of fully standard (and often elegant) English.

After the Civil War, the older field hand Negroes began to lose many of its Creole characteristics, and take on more of the features of the local white dialects (and written language).

Apart from this, the non-standard dialects of whites, with whom they (or their ancestors) have come in contact, were an influence for the B.E dialect.

Another important point that contributed (and contributes) to the decreolization, is the fact that American Blacks were (and are still) encouraged to be as “white” as possible, in essence if not in fact. The pressure comes from the larger society and from blacks that accept the view that uniquely African-Americans traits imply inferiority.

The non-standard speaker may still fall victim to the difference in social prestige between his dialect and Standard English. In other words, although middle-class persons may understand what he is saying, they may still consider him uncouth for saying it the way he does.

Over the last two centuries, more and more American Negroes speak a perfectly standard variety of English, but there is still larger number of non-standard American speakers.

It has to be noted that, tough in a minority, the creolism from the older Negro field hands speech of the plantations has survived, the proof is the Gullah.




These factors are the following:

  • In first place, we have to realize that B.E is not a completely different language, that's not true. The truth is that B.E is a dialect from the English and has, shares, many features with other kinds of English. Maybe it's a bit different because of a number of pronunciations and grammatical features which are not shared with other languages, but it's not another language (in fact, almost of the features associated with the dialect fluctuate with S.E forms in actual speech).

  • In second place, it's also important to note that not all Negroes speak B.E (just as not all persons of Spanish extraction speak with Spanish accent). However, it's called B.E because very few people speak it that is not Negroes.

  • In third place, and it's the most important in my opinion, B.E is a fully formed system in its own pronunciation and grammar rules, it cannot be dismissed as an unworthy approximation of S.E and if we do it, the possibility that it may have a grammar function quite different from S.E is excluded. That is, we have to put aside the social consequences of a particular form and ask how it functions in the dialect in question.

On the other hand, I think that the social dialect term is applicable, because B.E not depend exactly on a determined area, it's not a genetic question, but a cultural behaviour pattern, transmitted by tradition (as all the cultural patterns), that is, it's common to persons who share a past.

An inside this group, the B.E changes in function of: if the person is male or female, changes in persons of different ages (adults don't speak like children) and it's different in different social classes (of the same group of Negroes), that is, B.E speakers of the lower class speak a more radical non-standard English than a member of the middle class. So the B.E dialect changes with the person, not with the region, so it has to be a social dialect.


The name Ebonics is over two decades old (exactly 24 years old). The word was invented by a group of black scholars as a new way of talking about the language of African slave descendents. As the hip-hoppers say, Ebonics, then and now, “symbolizes a new way of talking the walk about language and liberatory education for African Americans”.

The name was born in a caucus made by some black conferees because of the bad work on the subject done by white researches.

For this group (the black scholars), Ebonics was away of decolonisation of the African-American mind, a way to begin repairing the maimed psyche of Blacks in America; Ebonics links Africans in America with Africans around the world.

In the Unites States are spoken different varieties of Ebonics (rooted in the Black American Oral Tradition) . And represents a synthesis of African and European linguistic-cultural traditions.

Some USEB (United States Ebonics) words may look like mainstream American English, but these words do not always have the same meaning in USEB as in LWC (Language of Wider Communication). There are many words that come directly from African: for example: Okay, gorilla, cola or jazz.

We can see the difference in the pronunciations, the way that are combined grammatically, and the communicative practices at the USEB speaking Community.


Here it is an example of Ebonics: “the brotha be looking good; that's what got the Sista nose open!”. Brotha means man, Sista means woman, and nose open means a passionate love.

USEB has an aspectual verb system, conveyed by the use of the English verb “be” to denote interactivity (recurring or habitual state-of-affairs; contrast “he be looking good” with “he looking good” which refers to the present moment only).

Brotha and Sista come from the influence of West African languages (many of them haven't an /r/ sound, and because of this, the don't pronounce the /r/ in brother and sister).

Apart from this, there is overlap between USEB and colloquial, everyday American English: for example, the use of ain't; ending sentences with prepositions; double negatives, etc…). But there are some distinctions that have to be noted, for example:

  • While the colloquial speaker says gonna or goin for the LWC form going to, USEB speaker uses the nasalized vowel form, producing a sound close to the LWC gone

  • Another distinction come from the negation patterns: the USEB speaker uses multiple negatives, like: “Don't nobody don't know God can't tell me nothing!”, in LWC it would be said in this way: “A person who doesn't believe in God and isn't saved has no credibility with me”.

These differences can produce misunderstanding between members from the two classes (USEB and LWC). One example of this could be this one: when a LWC speaker ask a USEB speaker “is she married?”, the USEB speaker would answer: “She been married”. If the USEB speaker pronounces the been without stress, it means that the woman was once married, but now is divorced; but if he pronounces it with stress, it would mean that she married a long time ago and is still married. Another example of misunderstanding is the fact that for USEB speaker, good means bad and vice verse.

Another feature of USEB is the so-called signification, that is a form of insulting in which a speaker puts down, talks about, needles -signifies on- other speakers.

The speaker deploys exaggeration , irony, and indirection as a way of saying something on two different levels at once, or to send a message of social critique.

When it is done with verbal agility, it avoids the creation of social distance between speaker and audience because the rich humour makes you laugh to keep from crying.

The signification can be divided in two types:

  • The one that is levelled at a person's mother (and occasionally at other respective). Normally it was referred to as “the dozens”/”playing the dozens”

Here it is an example from this:

LINDA: Girl, what up with that head?

BETTY: Ask your momma ( all the Sistas laugh)

LINDA: Oh, so you going there, huh? Well, I DID ask my momma. And she said “Cain't you see that Betty look like her momma spit her out”? (laughter from all, including Betty).

Instead of saying directly that her hairstyle is nothing of Linda's business, Betty responds with: “ask your momma”. This word: momma, has an utterance meaning in USEB. It stems from family patterns in which mothers are consulted about all kinds of thing. Fathers, may even respond to their children “ask your mother”.

  • The second type of signification is aimed at a person, action, or thing, either just for fun or for corrective criticism.

The Malcom x' signifying is a good example for this: “ Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, Brothas and Sistas, friend and enemies…” (the irony is that you don't usually begin a speech citing the names of your enemies.

The two types of signification, today are called “snapping”.

Today, to speak Ebonics is to assume the cultural legacy of U.S. salve descendants of African origin. To speak Ebonics is to assert the power of this tradition in the quest to resolve the unfinished business of being African in America.


First, I would like to comment something Stewart says in his article: “I will simply make no apologies to those who regard human behaviour as legitimate only if observed in the white man, since I feel that this constitutes a negation of the cultural and ethnic plurality which is one the America's greatest heritages”. First, the human behaviour is inherited to the human be, and the Good and the Bad has no conditions, that is, this is the same for all the people, it's not different in black, Indian, etc, people.

The distinction of a person only based in the race comes from the ignorance, and it's more ignorant the racist who lives in America, which is the mother of the ethnic plurality.

One thing curious for me is the game of the Dozens. It's a brilliant form of saying what you think but joking. All of this has a lot to do with the “Man of Words” tradition that comes directly from Africa. This tradition means to idolatrise the person who knows the words, and it is seen as a kind of power, that makes this Man of Words similar to a god. In the Negro culture, this tradition has, and is, been very important, and has had a lot of changes, from the pastor of the church, to the rappers nowadays.

And this game of the Dozens is the game of controlling the Word, knowing it, make it rhyme. That's a very interesting tradition.

The second point I would like to comment is that I think that something would have to be done with the cross-communication. I think that the first step to the tolerance is the communication, and if the B.E makes more radical, it would be impossible to both to communicate. I'm not saying that Negroes (and I don't use this word deceptively) forget their language, but they would learn something about Standard English, or inform the white about B.E. But in the reality, there is still too much racisms, two much isolation, not only from the part of the whites, but from the part of the Blacks. They (both) have made their groups and don't want to know anything about the other, and this makes more difficult the communication. So,

what's the solution for this problem?. I think that as the man is able to understand himself, he would be able to understand the others, and there's no language to get this, only the language of the conscience.



  • STEWART'S ARTICLE:…………………….1-4




  • WOLFRAM'S ARTICLE……………………4-5

  • QUESTION NUMBER ONE……………………….4-5

  • EBONICS………………………………….5-8

  • CONCLUSION……………………………8-9