On Ebonics, Politics and Wittgenstein...


I began thinking, philosophically, about language in 2008 when I first recognized that I was a writer. Looking back on the past five years of navigating inter-subjectivity in pedagogy and in my personal life has brought me back to a piece I attempted to write three years ago. It's a piece that explores the complex relationship between race, education, language and communication.

In this post, I’ll discuss the background to the 1996 Oakland School Board Resolution on Ebonics (The Resolution, hereafter) and it’s relation to Wittgenstein’s account of meaning and language. I will explore the reasoning behind treating Ebonics, or as linguist would call it African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as an independent language. Though this argument was the most controversial topic in The Resolution, I will attempt to show that Wittgenstein’s account of meaning via the notions of language games, forms of life, family resemblances, and interpretation, support the reasoning behind The Resolution. 


The Resolution stemmed from rising concern over the poor academic performance of African American Students living in California's Oakland School District (which at the time compromised 53% of students in the various Oakland schools.) Poor standardized test scores revealed that these students had difficulty performing across the curriculum [1]. Frustrated with the media attention and parental distrust, the school board launched an investigation into the teaching practices and other potential indicators of poor student performance. Following an observational period it was determined that student performance was directly correlated to the lack of proficiency in Standard English. Rendering reading, written assignments and tests incredibly difficult. 

The majority of African-American students within the Oakland School District spoke AAVE at home and were raised using the dialect. AAVE was the language through which they lived life. It became obvious that the language spoken at home (and outside of school) drastically differed from the language spoken in school; resulting in a dialectical quandary for students. Furthermore, teachers found that apart from homework assignments, students had little to no outside reinforcement of the reading comprehension and written communication lessons. As a result of these findings, the Oakland School District considered expanding an existing program, called the Standard English Proficiency (SEP) program to students who considered AAVE their primary language. SEP uses the methodology of English as a Second Language (ESL) pedagogy to bridge students from nonstandard to standard English. Stressing contrastive analysis, teachers ask AAVE students to ‘translate’ nonstandard English into standard English.

 The school board, with the help of the socio-linguist Dr. John Rickford and other local linguists, collected evidence from studies spanning over three decades that indicated that the use of vernacular to teach a standard was an effective strategy. Including a study by Simpkins and Simpkins in 1981 that concluded that teaching students first how to read in their vernacular and then transitioning to the standard had resulted in vastly better reading comprehension. As well as, evidence from the Bidialectal program in 5th and 6th grades in DeKalb county, Georgia and at Aurora University outside Chicago, show that contrastive analysis similar to that employed in the SEP and in Oakland yields greater progress in reading and writing for AAVE speakers than conventional methods.

 On December 18, 1996 the Oakland School Board decided to enact The Resolution, which would allow (among other things) AAVE (which was being treated as an independent dialect/language) to be used as a tool to aid students in learning of standard English. A lot of media attention manifested out of this Resolution because of the idea that Ebonics was being treated as a separate language. Their misguided criticism of this stems from this clause of The Resolution:

‘’WHEREAS, these studies have also demonstrated that African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English.’’

The idea of treating AAVE as an independent language aroused a lot of incendiary discussion amongst the politico’s and the media mostly because doing so implies a number of positive and negative situations. ‘’The notion that African-Americans speak an underdeveloped form of the speech of Southern whites who emigrated from England connotes racial condescension; the notion that they speak an independent dialect connotes racial pride; and the notion that they speak a distinct language connotes cultural separateness.’’ All of these connotations contributed to the fervor over recognizing AAVE as an independent language.

As a result of the excess of media attention, on January 13, 1997, the task force  made proposed changes to The Resolution. Removing the verbiage that suggested the concept that AAVE is genetically based and demoting AAVE as a separate language. Although the changes helped in quieting media attention, the politics of the entire resolution proposal became too ineffective to help students. The Resolution as a whole was withdrawn. 


Based upon Wittgenstein’s theory of language, I think he would support the measure. In later-Wittgenstein, he asserts that language is not merely a picture of the world, but that language is a tool. So long as communication between two parties exists, the form for which they use it is irrelevant.

Let's assert that AAVE is a language game related through family resemblances to English. Not in the primitive model, that Wittgenstein asks us to study in the PhiIosophical Investigations (Sections 2 and 7). But on a more complex level, that involves and prompts familiar communication. Just as in ‘’Standard English,’’ AAVE has a numerous amount of language games within the language as a whole. There are specific words and sentences that are used for commands, questioning, etc that differ in meaning and use from Standard English.

English and AAVE resemble each other in many facets but also differ greatly as well. Some of the similarities include: written and oral alphabet, some uses of grammar, and some phonetic pronunciation. But they differ in use of verb tenses, the meaning of some words and the intent of certain phrases.

What Wittgenstein wants to do with family resemblances is to move away from boundaries and looking for exactness (as was popular with the Positivists), and instead look for resemblances throughout language. I use this to argue the idea that Standard English need not be restricted in its use and meaning. The rise of AAVE, or even any other sub-dialect of a language, is a suitable example of how irrelevant the ancient use of forms are in relation to language. It seems that there is not any exactness or boundaries in language, because language is fluid. Even in Standard English, there is a clear evolution from the language of Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales to the language used in the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. Yet they are still both termed English and both communicate effectively to their readers.

 It would seem to me that the idea of family resemblances allow for AAVE speakers to be able to learn Standard English, because language has the ability to evolve dependent on forms of life. According to the definition linguists use of AAVE, it is a language that has evolved from multiple sources (the West Indies, Central America, etc); but, it has largely evolved from English. And just as how Chaucer and Meyer play different language games within an even larger language game (to which both are related) so does English and AAVE.

Wittgenstein’s Forms of Life is a concept which suggests that everything is ‘’given ’’ in culture, or rather culture dependent. The very idea that language has meaning has bases in an agreed form of life. Relating back to The Resolution, Wittgenstein might say that AAVE is a language that has meaning through a given form of life. The students in Oakland, were raised in a given culture (that involved living in Oakland, being black, coming from a working class family and participating in any activities or tradition that were particular to their circumstance) that gave meaning to the words/ sentences they used for communication. Through this lens, forms of life gives validity to the idea that AAVE, commonly known as Ebonics, is it’s ‘’own’’ language.

 A bigger question arises when we establish, with consensus, the possibility that AAVE could be considered a child's primary language. How do the School administrators and educators take one form of life and relate it to another, in a way where students can effectively inter-change between the two? The object for the Oakland School Board was to bring standardized test scores up, but does this mean that students who speak AAVE must assimilate to Standard English?  A dissenter might say that by positing this question it could be implied that there should be boundaries placed on these two languages in order for their to be inter-changeability. However, I would rebut by noting the family resemblances between the two .

Through all the different technicalities surrounding Wittgenstein’s principles on language, the idea that language is a tool for communication should not be lost. It is this prevailing concept that leads me to the conclusion that Wittgenstein would be in support of The Resolution and its effort to help students communicate more effectively to a wider audience.

In all of the sensationalism that the media perpetuated, the whole purpose of The Resolution vanished. This situation can be linked with what Wittgenstein did in his later works, where he wanted philosophy to move away from scrutinizing the essence of language and instead look at its’ use and meaning. From this perspective, I based my conclusion that Wittgenstein would be in support of The Resolution. It seems to me that his focus is more on the ability to communicate in society rather than the criteria or other particulars of whether or not a language is independent.

My own opinion through the Wittgenstein framework is similar. If these students have a form of communication, why not use that as a vehicle for them to learn the standard necessities they need to excel in school? 


[1] Rickford, J. "Linguistics, education, and the Ebonics Firestorm," 2000 Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics. Georgetown University Press: 2000.