For my 'language and social relations' unit, I have decided to write a letter from the editor of Ebony Magazine to its readers. This letter responds to a lot of the hype surrounding the DEA's (Drug Enforcement Agency) decision to hire 9 translators for Ebonics. Ebonics is the vernacular language of many African Americans in the United States and is rarely seen as a separate language. In critical columns, opponents of Ebonics argue that it is nothing more that 'ghetto' English. In my letter from the editor I respond to their arguments, suggesting that Ebonics can be quite poetic, expressive and part of Black history. While I suggest that African Americans should master standard English to be successful in the United States, I also encourage a level of appreciation for the vernacular. Finally, I state that the DEA's decision to hire Ebonics translators should be seen separately from these cultural issues. They are simply responding to a need to understand the people they arrest. Instead of focusing on the DEA's decision, I argue that speakers of Ebonics need to stop committing crimes. It gives the language a bad reputation.
Written Task 1 A message from the editor in chief, Amy DuBois Barnett, Ebony Magazine, 2011
The discussion about Ebonics or African American English (AAE) has recently started again, due to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seeking Ebonics translators. The commotion around our language is about the DEA putting Ebonics on their list of languages they translate, among official languages like Spanish or Vietnamese. Many white Americans have put a somewhat radical opinion out there; in general they think that Ebonics should not be seen as a distinct language and thus should not be on a list among official and distinct languages. Personally, I was shocked to see so many aggressive comments towards the language we speak in our daily lives – and expressing yourself so hostile against Ebonics is not the right thing to do in my opinion. The characterizations of Ebonics as ‘slang’, ‘lazy’ or ‘broken English’ are incorrect, demeaning and could offend a great amount of people. Ebonics is a form of communication that deserves recognition and study. In this months’ special edition we are taking a closer look at the events that are going on right now. There will be different views on this issue; the topics that are named here are all coming back and will be assessed throughout an in-depth article written by Aleecia Dewiz, Marcus Reganus, Tanya Leeso and Sean Comsin.
The last debate about the Ebonics language was almost fourteen years ago. On December 18th, 1996, the Oakland, California, Unified School District proposed using Ebonics for teaching English. This caused a national discussion and drew an awful lot of media attention. Due to this unwanted attention, the school board to alter their plans and teach it as a second language. My dear friend Jesse Jackson expressed his opinion on this matter saying that it was unacceptable for it may damage the children’s Standard English skills. Later he reversed his position towards the case by saying that he misunderstood the schools’ wish to teach Ebonics as a standard language – which was eventually not the case. Although I personally deeply care for the Ebonics language, English is a global lingua franca, so it is obvious that Standard English is the most important language that has to be spoken and taught in school. It has an instrumental motivation, while Ebonics is somehow regarded as more of a language that people use or learn with a intergrative motivation. However, there are so many other versions of English spoken over the world: almost each country that has English as their official or second official language, speaks a slightly different dialect. Just to name a few: Hong Kong English, Singapore English, Cameroon English, New Zealand English and Jamaican English. These are languages that can be learned because of the integrative and instrumental motivation. Ebonics could be one of these languages and this will be discussed in the article “Ebonics: language or idiolect?
The question that came up to me was why there is such a fuss about this specific variety of English. In the Anglophone world – which is an immense part of the world we live in – there are many different varieties of English. The one that is quite comparable to Ebonics is Chicano English, since it is also a cultural variety of English in the United States. There is less (media) commotion about this language, though. Is this because it is not considered a distinct language, as it is not on the DEA list or has not been tried to teach in schools? Or does it have something to do with people being intimidated by the Black American society? The thing that worries me is that this renewed issue might trigger polarization between the radical-thinking white Americans and us Black Americans. There is a large group of Black Americans that speaks Ebonics and is not against it being a distinct or even an official language, while the large group of non-African Americans thinks the other way around. If this is going to be a national debate again, a divide of ethnic groups might occur. Like mentioned above, in this issue there will be different views on this topic, including the negative point of view, explained by both a Black American and white American.
This is why I am kindly stressing to stand up for the Ebonics language, but to not forget about Standard English. I have written a feature on this as well, together with great help provided by Stephanie Reed and Tyrese Lutchin. Some might not like our language because they don’t understand it – hence the searching for translators, which definitely points out that not everyone can simply understand us. So speak the Ebonics language with pride, but think about the people around you and about your best interests – because Standard English is the most important language to know and to master. At least, for now.