‘Conversate’ is not a word?

An editor at the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees.

Of course it’s a word, the question is, is it acceptable. There are a lot of things that are acceptable in some situations, and not acceptable in others. “Table” is generally acceptable, but “ass” or “fuck” might not be, In some cases they would. It’s the same for “hopefully” or “irregardless.” They’re all words, but it behooves us to be serious and ask, is it acceptable in this context? If you’re delivering the State of the Union address, maybe “fuck” is not acceptable. If you’re having sex with your girlfriend, maybe it is acceptable.

People feel that there is a certain kind of language that’s appropriate and a certain type that isn’t appropriate. And these judgments are based on many things–some may make sense, some might not. People take these things very seriously. People are told things about the language in school that are demonstrably untrue, and they think anyone who doesn’t follow along with those beliefs is stupid or wrong.

Let me give you an example, in terms of looking at things historically. At the beginning of this conversation you pronounced the word “ask” as “aks.” This is something that people often object to. People say it’s the wrong pronunciation, and it’s stupid. But if you look at the history of the English language, you can’t tell if the correct pronunciation is “aks” or “ask.” The “aks” pronunciation goes back 1000 years. It’s in Beowulf. It’s in Chaucer.

What happened was both were in use. But at some point, the dialect in which the “ask” pronunciation was used became dominant. But both continued and have been in use since then. When you look at America, the “aks” pronunciation is widespread in Southern American English. African-Americans used this because they were in the South–it’s not especially African-American, but its Southern.

UPDATE: Comedy courtesy a commenter in that thread:

“If you’re delivering the State of the Union address, maybe ‘fuck’ is not acceptable.”

This year I would suggest that word as the entire first sentence of the State of the Union address, emphasized as though written with an exclamation mark and followed by a very long pause. I think we would all get it.

UPDATE #2: The pooh-poohing of the validity of Ebonics by black social commentators was always based on a misunderstanding of what proponents of teaching African American Vernacular English (particularly in Oakland) actually wanted. They weren’t pushing for teaching kids slang in classrooms; they were pushing for a recognition that the English kids primarily spoke and heard outside of class was valid if markedly different from standard American English, and carried with it its own syntactical rules. They argued that recognizing AAVE would aid them in helping students understand the rules of standard English. (Double negatives, for example, are a staple of Ebonics.)

This was the basis of a quibble I had with ‘The Wire.’ Every now and again, someone would slide a ‘to be’ verb into the wrong place in a sentence, and it would hit my ears as wrong. It’s quite possible to speak Ebonics improperly.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Grump

    aks some more shit…irregardless of the outcome

  • ladyfresshh

    this isnt a case an inappropriate word being used
    or even a new word whereas the current lexicon is insufficent

    this is the case of an incorrect word being used when there is another word available
    an apparently correct one which i thought was converse

    unless i can be corrected and conversate can be used in a way that converse would not substitute

    otherwise i do not agree with the reasoning

  • ladyfresshh

    and omg i would love that state of the union

  • lf: why is it incorrect just because ‘converse’ can be used in its place? You’re saying that converse is ‘more right,’ when the lexicographer above is saying that either is fine and valid, depending on the context in which you use it.

  • LF: The only argument for the use of a word is that there is no other word that can be used in its place? I’m not crazy about the word “conversate” but I don’t follow your reasoning here.

  • Aisha

    My first boyfriend was white and asked me to stop saying aks. I had no idea I pronounced it that way. I think I code switch to this day.

  • ladyfresshh

    G.D. & UE- the context he specifically referred to was regarding foul language that doesn’t apply in this case as conversate isn’t foul, basically his examples didn’t work for me because they really weren’t specific to this particular use. The ask vs aks is regarding pronounciation not spelling nor grammar also not specific to this word. maybe if he used tooked, worser or gooder and went from there i may have been more open to this.

    Maybe i misunderstood what the lexographer was saying, i think he is playing with semantics. I think he is saying language is fluid but unfortunately public perception limits this. for example ‘me no speaky english’ are also words but are they considered acceptable? and if so where are they acceptable? then in turn how does the context of where they are considered acceptable affect the speaker?

  • ladyfresshh

    oh and i agree it’s possible to speak ebonics incorrectly

  • I’m surprised he had to go all the way to the editor of the OED for such a response. Maybe I see it different considering I grew up mangling both English and Spanish. I use all kinds of conversate-type words when I switch over to Spanish.

    By the way, the comment you singled out was one of my favorites.

    I liked this comment too:

    to conversate = being part of or having an discussion with/between two or multiple parts.

    to converse = to walk…preferably in a pair of chucks…

  • glory

    I hate ‘conversate’. I have no reasoning for it other than that it grates my ears. It sounds made up, as if the words ‘discuss’ or ‘talk’ didn’t sound impressive enough for the speaker, so they reached for something bigger – ‘converse’ – and missed the mark by using ‘conversate’ instead, because they heard some other language-mangler use it, and took that as a sign that it was an appropriate word.

    Yet I unapologetically use “ain’t,” “y’all,” double negatives, and various other southern and black colloquialisms regularly. Even then, I have my limits. I don’t attached ‘ed’ to past tense words a la “walked-ed”, or say aks instead of ask. Those grate my ears too. I think it’s a matter of preference for everyone and people should just try to live and let live. Whenever I hear “jew-luh-ree” instead of “jew-el-ry”, “real-a-tor” instead of “re-al-tor” or “mis-chee-vee-ous” instead of “mis-chie-vous”, it’s my job to simply bear it. Yet in certain settings, non-standard language should be unacceptable. Bush has given Americans plenty of opportunities to blush in shame because of his bad usage of English. ‘Conversate’ sounds like a word he would actually use. Just please, please, not in front of a microphone!

  • ladyfresshh

    G.D. – i think you’ve gone down the wrong path, i’m having trouble with the mans reasoning

    I’m not of the well ‘it’s not a word’ group, i know it’s a word i don’t have a problem with it in context.

    I’m of the ‘what the hell is this man talking about’ group. Reading that blurb it seems he doesn’t understand how the word is actually used and made bad comparisons regarding it’s use. it comes across as a dude more familiar with standard english attempting to speak ebonics from a book.

    glory seems to have come closer to how or why the word has come about and is in use and it’s context than lexi dude

  • Shawn L.

    The Oxford Dictionary editor being quoted also happens to be the author of a book on the history of “The F Word”. He’s literally got a Ph. D. in “fuck”. Maybe he’s fallen into the habit of using that word to kick some dictionary knowledge even when other examples would be a lot more relevant.