There are many rich things about being African American that give me a warm smile. Among these are our innovative, ‘good for the soul’ foods (taken in moderation, of course), our pioneering spirit that has created an entire series of history-making ‘firsts,’ and our multitude of globally imitated genres of music and dance. These and many other things are reflective of our unique style that continues to grow out of our incredible resilience and adaptability as a people.
Our ever-evolving linguistics is no exception.
I once entertained a Q&A period with a group of African American pastors, when an older gentleman asked me to expound on my thought that our churches today need to regain their ‘pathetic’ voice in our culture. I tried to filibuster an academic answer while processing his odd request, when a fellow pastor released me from my distress by saying, “I believe he’s talking about regaining our ‘prophetic’ voice.” Suddenly, I realized that I had not loaded my Ebonics software. From that point my dialogue with my questioner proceeded without a hitch.
This incident caused me to chuckle about the whole phenomenon of Ebonics. Similar incidents over the years have caused me to ponder the unique qualities of this cultural expression.
Some would argue that Ebonics is a language; however it is much too fluid to be considered so. As soon as an ‘Ebonical’ expression becomes a part of the larger culture, we throw up our collective hands, roll our eyes, and abandon it to create a new twist as the latest fizzles – fo' rizzle.
I see Ebonics more as a dialect – one of vowel sounds, where most consonants are negotiable. Though I'm not a linguist or dialectician, here are a few Ebonics rules I have observed over the years.
When a consonant appears inside a word, it functions mainly as a vowel separator. This is why “exhibition” can be expressed as “expedition.” However, when the consonant begins a word, it often becomes essential. For example, ‘reparation’ might sound like ‘respiration.’ When a word ends in “sk” or “st”, to make it plural drop the “k” or the “t” and add “es”, for example, one desk, two ‘desses’; one guest, two 'guesses.' And if you ‘ax’ a question of the uninitiated, you're liable to get chopped down like a tree. Further, often the ‘th’ diphthong is replaced by ‘ff’; for example 'tooth' becomes 'tooff.' Add another ‘tooff’ and you get two ‘teeff.’ For three or more you get ‘teeff-us.’
Long words often incorporate shorter familiar words to make them easier to pronounce. For example, in some church circles I’ve heard ‘Sinai’ incorporated into ‘simultaneous,’ rendering, ‘sinai-taneus.’ Sometimes, a word appears so daunting that that a pronunciation is thrown at it. I heard this when an old 'man'd of Gawd' proclaimed, "Earrrrrly Sunday morning, the Lord rose up, and the ‘sukkapuss’ (sepulcher) was empty!" If this seems confusing, always remember the Ebonics meaning of a word or a phrase is determined by context, not by definition.
Some of us are bi-dialectical. For example, my wife, a classically trained actress who knows three languages will occasionally commit what linguists call a “code switch” at home, cracking a verb simply for emphasis. This usually happens when we’re discussing the household finances – the degree to which she cracks the verb tells me immediately how dire or prosperous our situation really is.
My kids are also bi-dialectical. This is OK with me, as long as they know how to switch the code back and speak Standard English proficiently. After all, the world will judge them by how they speak – to not acknowledge this is to be unwise. By the way, being bi-dialectical doesn’t require the ability to speak Ebonics, just to understand it. Did you ever notice that most who speak only Ebonics can understand English?
Some take Ebonics too seriously while others insist it is useless. For us to fully appreciate it for what it is, we must encourage and teach Standard English among all English speakers, while appreciating the nuances of our dialectical history as a people-group. The Cajuns have their own dialect; the Jamaicans have patois, etc. If you 'ax' me, there’s no crime in enjoying Ebonics for what it does best – it provides an expression of one facet of our culture and acts as a lighthearted relief when our verbiage gets too laborious.
Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX. Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr