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Interesting Etymologies 35 : Ebonics

"Hello again Word Lovers!" In this week we are taking a slight diversion as we look at words developed within English but influenced by other languages and grammar. This created a type of English within English, spread mainly by black Americans, and named by a black American, Robert Williams in 1973, "Ebonics". Ebone to represent Black and "onics" as reference to Phonics. This has become understood as the way black populations use language in comparison to white speakers. It is also called African American Vernacular English (AAVE), formerly Black English Vernacular (BEV), dialect of American English spoken by a large proportion of African Americans.

The name was intended to provide a label for the linguistic consequences of the slave trade without negative connotations that other labels could evoke.

It remained a a little-known term that was not adopted by linguists or featured in the Oxford English Dictionary. This changed in 1996 when controversy emerged over the Oakland School Board decision to recognise it is a primary language for Afro American students and therefore acquire further funds to facilitate the teaching of standard English.

Gumbo - A dish from the southern states of America. The word comes from a West African word for Okra, which is one of the ingredients to the recipe.

Yam - Sweet potato. This can be dated to the 1580s. Inhame in Portuguese, Igname in Spanish, both believed to be Hispanic pronunciation of some West African languages candidates. Possibly Nyami - to eat in the Fulani language or Enyinam from a language known as Twi. This could be the basis of the global onomatopoeic phenomenon of "yum yum" or "ñam ñam" to represent eating something enjoyable.

Banjo - Comes from the Bantu word for an instrument called an Mbanza. Ebonics does not have a great deal of written evidence to sustain etymologic claims but there is a reference to the Banjar in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to lend weight to this etymology.

The etymological claims of many words are not recognised due to the lack of written support, so many Ebonic etymologies are "postulated", this includes some very well known words such as:

Cool, hip, Jazz and the verb to dig when used to understand somebody or something. (Some of these words are explored in IE19 : The Jazz Age)

To bad mouth someone is a Calque (IE34 Chinese investigates Calques) from the Mandinka language in Africa

The pejorative word for whites Ofay possibly derives from the Yoruba word "Ofe" which means to evade or disappear.

Ebonic languages have often become the established languages rather than standard English in many locations. One example is "Liberian Settler English" which emerges from the Ebonics of 16,000 African Americans who moved there in the 1800's.

Ebonic differences are largely in grammar rather than vocabulary, a simplification of the native grammar often occurs. This process was observed in the settlement of the Vikings in England. This process helped simplify English into the language it is today. Verbs and pronouns were rationalised, inflections were dropped, no grammatical genders and prepositions came into use rather than word order.

This simplification can be seen in the internet meme "he/she be like". Be without declination is a common form in Ebonics, this is not unheard of in certain rural areas of England. This in fact could be considered a last remnant of the near extinct subjunctive form in English, kept alive by rural English backwaters and Afro American language use in America.

Example Ebonic sentence:

"Ah on know what homey be doin" - "I don't know what my friend from my neighbourhood is doing"

We are left with the question, how do we define Ebonics? Is it a dialect of English or a language in it's own right or is it more akin to Pidgin or Creole?

Pidgin - When two languages mix, although originally referred to a business affair, emerging from the Chinese pronunciation of business.

Creole - Largely, by definition, a language spoken by people born in a country that they are not indigenous to, the most obvious example being the scourge of slavery. This emerges from the Latin - creare - to make, bring forth, produce, beget. It does have a PIE root of ker - to grow.

Ebonics is neither of these, and is certainly a very interesting area of English language etymology

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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