. . . 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."

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