Holding your tongue: dialects of power

By Bibek Gurung.

There was a video that went viral a few weeks ago. In the constellation of the so-called viral videos that sprout and immediately die seemingly every week, it’s hard to keep track of these dubious gems. I’ll refresh your memory. The video in question was very helpfully titled Black Lady Describes How Speaking Properly Shouldn’t Be Viewed As “Talking White.” That’s what it was. No bells or whistles; just a video of a Black American woman speaking to the camera for two minutes and nineteen seconds. It was viewed tens of thousands of times and reposted with similar vigour. Her thesis begins thusly – ‘There’s no such thing as talking white…’ I was cautiously on board with what she had to say but I had a sinking feeling. As she continued, my fears were confirmed. ‘It’s actually called speaking fluently.’

We all know what this woman is talking about. Black people in America speak a certain way; that way of speaking is seen as uneducated; and it would be better if Black people started talking in a way that sounded more educated. That way of speaking is known by many names – broken English, Ghetto talk, Ebonics. Linguists know it as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Further into the video she continues ‘I don’t know how we got to a place where as a culture, as a race, if you sound as if you have more than fifth grade education it’s a bad thing.’ At that point, I knew where this was going.

This brings us to why we’re talking about this video. Why is this being talked about so much at all? To be fair, the woman’s views are valid to her experiences, and a product of the prejudices and issues she has had to face. But it’s no secret that this video is being used because it gives racists the opportunity to say ‘Hey, look! A black person is saying what we think, so we’re allowed to say it!’ What was a unique point of view is being used as a universalised justification for the bigotry of the narrow-minded who have an axe to grind.

A library of videos and statements have been made in the past that parrot the aforementioned sentiment and were received enthusiastically by lots of people whose dialects coincidentally happen to sound educated, you know who I mean. An example is this statement by Bill Cosby, seen as King-Pope authority on Black people (by racists): ‘They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: Why you ain’t, Where you is, What he drive, Where he stay, Where he work, Who you be…’ He continues to lament the fact that Black people speak AAVE and argues that it is directly a result of rejecting education and higher thought.

But this reveals a deep lack of understanding of language and the place that it has in communities. AAVE is categorically not broken English. It’s not an imperfect imitation of a ‘proper’ way of speaking. AAVE is a dialect on its own that has very consistent rules on grammar and how words are formed. A lot of well meaning people refuse to recognise that there is a way of ‘talking Black’ but that’s just as harmful.  To explain, let me go into some examples of AAVE that parents complain about their kids using.

One is a how a lot of black people pronounce ‘ask’ as ‘ax.’ This is not a corruption or a bastardisation or any patronising term you want to use. Both forms have been in use for about the same length of time and are descended from an ancestral word – acsian. Even fucking Chaucer, the most English of Engs used ‘ax.’ That’s right, languages aren’t handed down fully formed by some grammarian deity, they’re evolving entities that reflect the growth and vibrancy of the individual groups that use them to communicate.

Another example is the word ‘be’ as in ‘He be going to the store.’ This does not translate to ‘He is going to the store’ but is a completely different grammatical construct called the habitual. The sentence actually means ‘He often goes to the store, but not necessarily right now.’ An experiment by the University of Massachusetts showed some Black children a video of Elmo eating cookies and Cookie monster just chilling. They were asked ‘Who be eating cookies?’ and the children chose Cookie Monster because he’s the one that eats cookies habitually.

There are also a number of features of AAVE that are actually from the ancestral dialect of the 1600s but don’t exist in most American dialects. That’s beside the point. Black people have always been looked down upon for speaking their dialect because it’s a convenient marker of their position in society. Condemning their dialect is a tool of oppression.

This kind of treatment also applies to other communities that are historically oppressed or from a lower socio-economic background. Aboriginal Australians have been discouraged from using greetings like ‘which way,’ working class Australians are told not to say ‘youse.’ In every country there exists a prestige dialect, one that has the most social capital and belongs to the people who wield the most power. Anything that strays from this is therefore ‘undesirable’ and ‘uneducated.’

But all people are able to code switch between the prestige dialect and their own depending on the circumstances. As Dave Chappelle says ‘Every Black American is bilingual. We speak street vernacular and we speak job interview.’

People will continue to use their own dialects because language isn’t just about communicating information. It’s a bond between people who have similar experiences, face the same challenges. It allows people to say ‘I have never met you but I know we are family.’ The ignorant may try to destroy that but community has always been stronger than bigotry.