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By John McWhorter of The Root

For all the talk about what a subtle business the n-word is, the concept of Ebonics is just as tricky.

And in the wake of the theatrically pat culmination of the Dr. Laura drama — her exiting stage right — here we are grappling with the Drug Enforcement Administration sending out a call for Ebonics translators.

And as usual when Ebonics is proposed as something other than ghetto slang, the media are with people, black and white, ridiculing the notion of Ebonics as “a language.” It’s an odd thing: On the one hand, as recently as January the same people were bristling at Harry Reid’s implication that black people harbor a “Negro dialect.” And yet this week, said same are swooning over Spike Lee’s latest documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans, replete with black people who sound off in fluent “Negro dialect” being readily embraced as bards of the race.

There is a DuBoisian double consciousness regarding Ebonics, then, and in this DEA case, what DuBois would have termed the “African” sentiment — warm, in-group, proprietary — is most useful. Namely, the DEA might be on to something.

Understanding this first requires getting past the idea that black English — a term I will use, since “Ebonics” sounds more like a disease — is just a fig-leaf locution for broken English. It is actually different English. You wouldn’t know it, though, from how often even specialists eagerly describe it as just leaving off consonants and the verb “to be” and then wonder why America continues to think of it as broken language. But there’s much more to it than that.

“Folks be talkin,” someone says. That does not mean that people are talking right now — it means that people talk on a regular basis, as in, “Folks be talkin whenever somethin like dat happens.” That usage of be is a very particular piece of grammar, expressing a nuance that standard English leaves to context. Black English is a seemingly still water that runs deep.

Read the rest of the story at The Root

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