. . . while US blacks get a separate tongue of their own

Is `Ebonics' a true language or just a dialect? asks Tim Cornwell in Los Angeles

The Queen and her former colonial subjects in American inner cities might have trouble understanding one other, but until now it has been taken for granted that they are speaking the same tongue.

The decision by the California city of Oakland to recognise black English as a second language in its schools seemed, on the face of it, preposterous. Black Americans may say "walkin" for "walking" (which Americans don't?). They may make unorthodox use of "be" in the present tense and "done" in the past - "He be goin' to work", "He done did it". But certainly in the view of the US Department of Education, which examined the question in the 1980s, black English is English, if not quite the Queen's.

Oakland's new policy, however, seemed to touch a racial and cultural nerve among American blacks. While some academics denounced the decision as an insult to black children which risks further stigmatising inner- city blacks, others have long wanted black accents recognised as different, not deficient. Several US school districts and universities have worked to recognise black English - in the name of helping students switch more easily to "standard English", without feeling their own dialect is second- rate or wrong.

"The mainstream recognises standard English, and if you are going to survive you have to be in a sense bilingual," said Professor Todd Boyd, an expert in black popular culture at the University of Southern California.

The school board in Oakland, near San Francisco, effectively put "Ebonics" - a name coined from "ebony" and "phonics" - in the same category as Spanish or other second languages spoken at home. Teachers would be trained to teach black students in their "primary language" where necessary. The city, where blacks account for slightly over half of the 56,000 public school pupils, is widely suspected of fishing for some of the $250m (pounds 150m) available in US government grants for bilingual education.

Linguists claim "Ebonics" combines West African grammar and pronunciation with the language of European plantation owners, and has about 50 distinct characteristics. Mostly a spoken dialect, it typically involves dropping consonants at the end of words, and simplifying the present tense with "be".

In "cold" or "old" the "l" is lost, while "th" is replaced with"f", as in "toof", or "souf". The use of "axe" or "aks" for "ask" may date back 400 years, when it was largely dropped by educated English speakers but held on among poor whites and blacks. But "Ebonics" has also brought its modern slang into contemporary language, lately through rap music - to "diss", meaning to disrespect, for example, as in "he dissed me".

Some experts in black English claim that as many as 80 percent of African- Americans speak some form of it. They argue that black students' poor performance in cities like Oakland, where they have lower grades than Hispanic and Asian students, may be partly because they struggle to decode the grammar of regular written English.

Barbara Bourke, a school board member in Los Angeles, wants the city to follow Oakland in recognise "Ebonics" as a legitimate language - but at the same time to return to rigid classroom standards for English grammar, dropped in the 1960s in the name of self-esteem. "Some people call it `cash English' because when they get a job they need cash English, not any kind of dialect," she said. "Iwould not hire someone who is not proficient in English for a job. We have seen too many of our students disenfranchised."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Life and Style
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s
food + drinkNew BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain
News
Google celebrates St David's Day 2015
newsWales' patron saint is believed to have lived in the 6th century
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?