Formality of language, power, and African American English

Yesterday, I read Jamelle Bouie’s great article on Slate responding to arguments about the notion of “talking White” (or “acting White”), or the idea that African Americans are opposed to things like ‘standard’ English or even academic success because they are associated, in our collective imagination, with Whiteness.

In particular, he responds to the video below which features an African American woman who takes issue with people who characterize the use of ‘standard’ English as “talking White”.

I’ve produced a rough transcription of the video here (capital letters indicated stressed words):

all right
hear me out
i just have to say
i saw this on a post on facebook
um and i wanted to talk about it on video
there’s no such thing as
or y’know you’re talking you’re speaking WHITE
speaking FLUENTLY
speaking your language CORRECTLY
um i don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where
as a culture
um as a race
if you SOUND as though you have more than a fifth grade education
it’s a BAD thing
y’know um there’s actually NOTHING WRONG with that
in other cultures
if you speak your language CORRECTLY and FLUENTLY
it’s actually ADMIRED
this person’s ed- this woman’s educated
this man is educated
where did you go to school?
um y’know this person took the TIME
and had the DRIVE
to get it RIGHT
to speak CORRECTLY
um i find that our culture is one of the few
that actually FROWNS upon personal EVOLVEMENT
so i just ask that you THINK about THAT
i know
it’s something we don’t like to talk about
but um having proper DICTION doesn’t belong to the caucasian race
i that really gets under my skin
having proper diction is what you’re supposed to do
and i have to say
if you only speak one language
i can understand if you’re a BILINGUAL
um but if you only speak ONE language
even like your NATIVE TONGUE
and you don’t speak it CORRECTLY
that’s NOT COOL
if you don’t know how to y’know ENUNCIATE YOUR WORDS
like that’s NOT COOL
it shouldn’t be frowned upon
so let’s STOP saying that
y’know this person talks WHITE
acts WHITE
think about what you’re saying
because y’know in the same conversation
you’ll say the white man’s bringin us down
but you don’t realize that you’re actually ELEVATING this race
by saying they’re the ONLY ONES
that are allowed to speak
as though they are educated
and that’s not right
think about it

This is a complex issue that I believe has less to do with language, grammar, or pronunciation and more to do with prejudice and the maintenance of societal power. I wanted to add my two cents as a sociolinguist, who has, for years, interpreted and distilled the ideas of people like William Labov, Walt Wolfram, Geneva Smitherman, John Rickford, John Baugh, H. Samy Alim, and Lisa Green on African American English and other stigmatized Englishes (my apologies to anyone I’ve left out).

The first thing I need to address is that the speaker in the video repeatedly refers to a ‘correct’ form of language. For example she states that “There’s no such thing as talking White or, y’know, you’re talking you’re speaking White. Um it’s actually called speaking fluently. Speaking your language correctly.” Presumably, the speaker is addressing those who use a variety known as African American English (AAE). In doing so, she draws on a common cluster of misconceptions about language, known as the standard language ideology. Josef Fruehwald sums up the standard language ideology nicely in a recent article:

It’s the idea that somewhere out there, there’s a perfect, unadulterated version of English, and what your everyday person speaks is a poor copy. I call it the kilogram model of language, because there is literally a physical object in France by which the unit kilogram is defined, and there are in fact multiple and worryingly imperfect copies of it around the world. But what linguists have discovered is that language is definitely not like the kilogram. The only place where English really exists is in the minds of its everyday speakers. To the extent that varies geographically and socially, so does English. There are no imperfect copies.

Applying this idea to the video above then, the people that the speaker is addressing, AAE speakers, are fluent speakers of their language, although their speech may show evidence of disfluency at times (as by the way does the speaker’s speech, for example, the use of “um”, and so does anyone else’s, my own certainly included). AAE speakers enunciate their words according to the norms of AAE pronunciation, and they produce sentences according to the grammar rules of AAE.

However, there’s more going on here than simply a debate over pronunciation and grammar. The discussion is really about the distribution of pronunciation and grammatical form across hierarchies of people. For example, she states that “You don’t realize that you’re [people who say others are “talking White” are] actually elevating this race [White people] by saying they’re the only ones that are allowed to speak as though they are educated”. Thus, the speaker points to a complex network of associations between education (or the notion of being ‘educated’, perhaps largely a covert reference to social class), Whiteness, and ‘standard’ English. She rejects these connections because, if we accept the idea that there is one correct form of the language, then the only viable option for the social advancement of oppressed peoples is to try to sever the links between Whiteness and this one correct form which bestows power: ‘standard’ English.

In his article, however, Bouie takes a different approach. He acknowledges that what the people that the video is meant to address speak is actually its own language; he writes that “AAVE is a distinct form of English used by many blacks in informal settings”. AAVE stands for African American Vernacular English (Wikipedia has a pretty good overview of it, and many of the scholars I mentioned above have produced more scholarly accounts). I prefer to omit the word vernacular since I believe the term helps to cement a separation between language for official purposes and language for ‘goofin around’, which is what I would like to address in response to Bouie’s article.

Bouie argues that the accusation that someone is “talking White” is not about a complete avoidance of or disdain for ‘standard’ English by African Americans. Instead, he argues, it is an issue of the language that is expected in informal settings, perhaps those that include only or mostly African Americans. Thus, by using ‘standard’ English in such settings, the speaker in the video is not using the in-group language of solidarity, AAE, that is expected in such settings. Her use of a language associated with White people is particularly distancing given African Americans’ daily experiences of racism at the hands of White people, hence the idea of “talking White”.

I find Bouie’s interpretation of the situation compelling. However, I am troubled by one small aspect of it, and this has to do with the notion of ‘formality’, which is not unpacked in Bouie’s article. In particular, Bouie’s description of AAE, “a distinct form of English used by many blacks in informal settings” [my emphasis], is not necessarily descriptively inaccurate since AAE is certainly used in informal settings. However, the description implies that AAE is not (or perhaps should not be) used in settings that we might label ‘formal’. I think two interrelated points are worth making with regards to this idea.

First, AAE is not exclusively used in informal settings although there are many bidialectal speakers who can and do move pretty seamlessly between AAE and ‘standard’ English depending on what they feel the situation calls for. We have seen instances where the presence of AAE in so-called ‘formal’ settings leads to denigration of the speaker, for example, when Rachel Jeantel testified in the George Zimmerman trial and was ridiculed for her use of AAE. Inability to use ‘standard’ English then has serious consequences for many people, including many AAE speakers, particularly when they and their language enter ‘formal’ settings like the courtroom, the school house, or the White House. Such discriminatory acts are often rationalized on the basis of the standard language ideology. Since AAE speakers and speakers of other stigmatized languages do not speak ‘correctly’ or ‘fluently’ or do not ‘enunciate’, they are in some way open to criticism.

Second, I think it’s worth considering what is meant by ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ and why we have a sense that AAE and other stigmatized Englishes are inappropriate for ‘formal’ settings. When entering settings like the classroom or the courtroom, we all use language that differs from what we might use in settings we recognize as ‘informal’. The language of the classroom is governed by different norms than the language of the playground. All of this means that all speakers will use different language for different settings. Bouie echoes this idea at the end of this article when he writes “as a teacher might tell her students, there’s language for home, and there’s language for school, and sometimes, what works for one place might not work for the other”.

We should, however, consider two issues. First, we need to recognize that the distance between some people’s “language for home” and “language for school” is much wider than that same distance is for others; AAE speakers’ gap is quite a bit larger than ‘standard’ English speakers’ gap. Second, we should ask ourselves why it is that there is apparently “language for school” and “language for home” and why one does not work in the other. If AAE is “language for home”, then presumably it is somehow incompatible with school. There are at least two different explanations for its alleged incompatibility.

The first explanation is the one that I think most people will easily arrive at. There is something about AAE and other ‘informal’ or ‘nonstandard’ languages that makes them incapable of fulfilling the tasks of school or work. They are simply not “the right tool for the job”. If you were to press this idea further and ask someone to point out what exactly it is about AAE or other ‘nonstandard’ Englishes that makes them an ineffective tool for academic writing, then they would probably resort to an argument that ‘standard’ English is somehow more complex. They might point to things like copula deletion in AAE. That is, in AAE, “He not home” is a perfectly grammatical sentence that a ‘standard’ English speaker might say as “He’s not home” or “He isn’t home” or “He is not home”. To many people, things like copula deletion suggest that AAE is somehow impoverished as a language in relation to ‘standard’ English. However, this is a poor argument for two reasons. First, it is based on a very narrow scope of grammatical features in AAE and ‘standard’ English selected with the intention of making ‘standard’ English appear more grammatically complex when there are other features of AAE that might make its grammar appear more complex (such as its tense and aspect system). Second, and more importantly, it conflates two distinct issues: grammatical complexity and ability to convey complex thought. The relative complexity of different grammars is up for debate, but linguists are firmly in agreement that, “all languages are equally powerful means of communication” (quoted from here). Notice that while “he not home” may be relatively less complex in terms of form, it communicates an equivalent referential meaning. In fact, we could argue that, in this case, AAE is more efficient as it essentially does the same amount of communicating with fewer words. In the end, my point is that there’s no good reason to believe that AAE lacks the linguistic capacity to be used as the medium of schools, the courts, or even Congress.

The second explanation for why AAE is often considered to be appropriate for home but not for school is much more compelling, and it’s quite simple. People are prejudiced against AAE speakers, and they seek to exclude them from institutions and positions of power. Of course, it’s not only AAE speakers. We have quite a bit of disdain for speakers of many Englishes as we can see from Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” series, but AAE is particularly prone to generate negative reactions, especially when it is used in so-called ‘formal’ settings. Consider, again, the nasty things people said about Rachel Jeantel when she took the stand in the George Zimmerman trial. AAE, as a human language, is perfectly capable of expressing ideas for the courtroom or the internet, but we react to it negatively by jumping to the easy conclusion that features like copula deletion are indicative of stupidity, laziness, ignorance, or lack of education. Thus, it is not that AAE is the “wrong tool for the job” or that AAE is not a powerful enough means of expression for school or work. It’s that we believe that AAE speakers are the wrong people for school and work.

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Posted in Language and race
One comment on “Formality of language, power, and African American English
  1. Wonderfully complex analysis, as usual, Nic!

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