icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


The most explosive language-related issue in American history erupted late in 1996. The school board of Oakland, California, declared that "Ebonics," the vernacular of African Americans, and specifically of their children in the school district, was "genetically based and not a dialect of English" but grounded in "African Language Systems." The affair was nationwide front-page news, even prompting a special hearing by a subcommittee in the US Senate.


Along with historical linguistics, psycholinguistics, generative grammars, and the like, my academic background in the science of language included the African American vernacular and a Bantu language. This put me in a position to separate the truth from the nonsense about the Ebonics controversy. I was contracted by a publishing house to write a book and I delivered it in record time. (The cover shown here was their design.) Unfortunately, the publisher was running into financial difficulty and subsequently went bankrupt.


It was long my intention to return to the Ebonics issue. My book, now almost complete, has been greatly expanded as well as revised and updated. Most notable is Chapter 1, now entitled "The Science of Language." My assumption is that, on average, even well-read audiences know virtually nothing about linguistics. I endeavor to introduce the reader to the discipline in an unusual way – by telling how in the course of centuries linguists (or philologists, as they were once called) came to know what they know. I particularly elucidate how the meaning of the term "genetic" is used in linguistics, which has nothing to do with human genes or races.


Armed with this fundamental knowledge of the science of language, the book tackles the explosive issue of African American speech. We begin with the West-African languages spoken by the ancestors of African Americans. We then look at the English maritime trade pidgin – the common lingua franca – spoken as a second language by many Africans who fell victim to the slave trade. We follow the evolution of this speech in the New World as it became a creole, the mother tongue of the descendants of the transported Africans. It is shown how in the course of three centuries its grammar gradually became more like standard English, while simultaneously making some unique and impressive grammatical innovations of its own.


On our journey, we also travel to Suriname on the coast of South America and consider the deepest of all English creoles and its surprising potentialities. We go to South Africa and see how a White creole became a standard national language. We look at the political and social status of minority tongues around the world and at educational policies aimed at their perpetuation rather than extinction. And we consider whether such policies could or should be applied to the African American vernacular in the US.


Historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, transformational-generative grammar, language education policy – all these come together in this story of the most volatile language event in US history.