Language in Society

Research Article

Unequal partnership: Sociolinguistics and the African American speech community

John Russell Rickforda1

a1 Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2150,


American quantitative sociolinguistics has drawn substantially on data from the African American speech community for its descriptive, theoretical, and methodological development, but has given relatively little in return. Contributions from the speech community to sociolinguistics include the development of variable rules and frameworks for the analysis of tense-aspect markers, social class, style, narratives, and speech events, plus research topics and employment for students and faculty. The contributions which sociolinguistics could make in return to the African American speech community – but has not done sufficiently – include the induction of African Americans into linguistic, the representation of African Americans in our writings, and involvement in courts, workplaces, and schools, especially with respect to the teaching of reading and the language arts. This last issue has surged to public attention following the Oakland School Board's “Ebonics” resolutions on Dec. 18, 1996.

The present unequal partnership between researcher and researched is widespread within linguistics. Suggestions are made for establishing service in return as a general principle and practice of teaching and research in our field. (African American Vernacular English, Ebonics, applications of sociolinguistics, community service, dialect readers, variation theory)