You Don't Speak the Dunn Language (Properly).

The Field Negro, on Michelle Obama’s recent comments that she was teased for speaking like a white girl:

First, there is no such thing. Either you speak clearly or you don’t. … people have accents, and we all speak in different ways.The important thing is that we speak well, and in a way that can be clearly understood by whoever is listening to us. Now unfortunately, some of my cousins, well…’s almost like they don’t want the person listening to understand. Unless you are in on the secret slang, you don’t deserve to understand what the speaker is saying. For some of us, it’s our own way of communicating that might as well be a totally different language. When our children grow up speaking like this it’s tough to get them out of it. And damn it, the shit can be embarrassing when they reach adulthood. If I have to strain to understand the conductor on the train, or the person taking my order at the fast food restaurant, that’s a problem. Especially when they are supposed to be speaking English. I am not talking about an accent here, I am talking about putting words together that just don’t belong. Just what the hell does, you be done messed up, mean? YOU. BE. DONE. MESSED. UP. That is not English, that is some kind of ghetto Morse code that will get you nowhere in school.

Field’s frustration is a common one, but so is his misunderstanding of black English. Speaking Ebonics — or African American Vernacular English, as linguists call it — doesn’t mean one speaks improperly; the speaker is simply using a dialect that is different from Standard American English, and one that has specific grammatical rules. (When Field grits his teeth at the supposed usage of ‘you be done messed up’,  he’s almost certainly misquoting the supposed speaker: the ‘to be’ verb would actually be implied in that sentence, so the grammatically correct way to say this sentence in Ebonics would be ‘you done messed up.’)

His assertion that people speak Ebonics (which he may erroneously be conflating with slang, but I can’t tell) in a deliberate attempt to be unintelligible to outsiders goes a bit far, I think. Or at least, it’s a claim that’s not specific to Ebonics. All dialects necessarily reinforce the in-group/out-group dynamic, and facility in a certain dialect comes with subtle but powerful advantages in the context in which it’s spoken. Take this nugget from a conversation yesterday with my co-blogger universeexpanding, a West Indian who lives in St. Vincent and the Grenadines but has studied for long stretches in Canada and London.

Today I had to go into the market. I didn’t want to get overcharged, so I deliberately thickened up my accent to mark me as local because my personal style and usual speech don’t.

(Since y’all can’t hear it: UE’s ‘normal’ accent has a vaguely British lilt to it, but she can lapse into an impenetrable patois — to my ears, at least — and manage a pretty good Cockney. To code-switch as effectively as she does required prolonged and meaningful exposure to different social milieux, and it’s a skillset she developed out of necessity to navigate those spaces.)

But what if she couldn’t do that? I remember watching a documentary on poor black women trying to escape poverty (the name of which escapes me). The women were being taught job interviewing skills, and I remember hearing snickering at one woman’s performance during her mock interview. She wasn’t trying to bomb the interview, although that’s what was happening. What she was doing was applying the cultural and linguistic skills that had served her in the past — an informality and  exaggerated familiarity — that was misplaced in this context. She did not have access to the linguistic (and thus social) skills that would mark her as an insider, and the mock interview, with its follow-up critiques from the instructors, was a way to teach them to her to improve her chances.

So it is with Fields’ train conductor, whom he  chides for not speaking ‘properly.’ What’s really happening is s/he’s not speaking properly for that context. Field seems to think that speaking this ‘lesser’ English in this setting is a personal failing, a sign of the wielder’s linguistic (and moral?) profligacy. It’s not. It’s just another stand-in for socioeconomic class,  a likely indicator of the access and opportunity possessed (or not) by the speaker.

Okay. Onto Ms. Obama’s original comments. This might get me into a bit of trouble. I’ve complicated ideas on the notion of ‘talking white.’ I think it’s a real phenomenon, and one that has nothing to do with silly, oft-repeated assumptions about a lazy aversion to speaking ‘properly’ or SAE. The clerk at the Vitamin Shoppe that I hit up on the way back from my gym is a dark-skinned black girl who speaks with hard vowels and peppers her speech with ‘like’; she sounds like a Valley Girl. To my ears, she sounds ‘white’, but I’d never suggest she sounds ‘proper.’ On the other hand, there are people like, say, Michael Eric Dyson. Leaving aside his penchant for grandiloquence/ostentatious polysyllabism, his English is ‘proper’. But upon hearing his voice over the phone, few people would mistake him for white.

Yeah, yeah: there’s no one black accent. (Or white/Spanish/Spanglish ones, for that matter.) And I think the charges of whiteness leveled at Michelle Obama were not about how ‘properly’ she spoke or how well she did in school — note the insinuation of a dysfunctional black pathology here — as much as that her speaking patterns were being molded in such a way that would aid  the social mobility her parents wanted for her. But many black South Siders, who came up from St. Louis/New Orleans during the Great Migration, have Southern-sounding drawls.  Now, maybe Michelle had one before she went to Princeton, and maybe she didn’t. (She doesn’t have one now, or at least not publicly.)  If she didn’t have one, it wouldn’t surprise me that it might offend people who saw their way of speaking as familiar and beautiful, and saw her not doing so as opting out of it. It’s still not really fair, of course. But it’s a little more nuanced and whole lot less insulting than suggesting that they said it just because she was smart.



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.
  • Ron

    One of the reasons I like this blog, is because you all do such a great job of taking issues that other people gloss over or have viscerally negative reactions to and engage them intellectually.

    As for the whole vernacular thing, I just cringe when these conversations happen because it creates this validation for people who don’t have a clue of what they’re talking about to expropriate the words for their own fantastical purposes. As if somehow, so called “talking proper” was something black folks didn’t know how to do and that we’re needing to rediscover as if it were some sort of lost art.

    It’s just offensive.

    But these days, I think it’s probably assimilation, ascribing to be something other than what people assume you to be or perhaps, just hanging out with people who talk a certain way and adopting their pattern of speech — rather than that of your family or something.

    I dunno.

  • -k-

    I’m a speaker of a prestige form of English and a widely disparaged form of Spanish, and what you say about context is on point. Speaking the variety of a language that’s spoken by the army*, I never really had to think very much about my English. Even in settings where I am the odd one out linguistically, I just am, and that’s fine.

    Inside Puerto Rico, nobody bats an eye at the elided consonants, etc. Outside of the Caribbean, my accent is clearly nonstandard. There are people who like it quite a bit (thanks, Daddy Yankee), but there are more who view it as something of an abomination. And it’s crazy because PR accents are far and away my favorite, “familiar and beautiful”. They feel like home. And there’s the sting of knowing that, to other people, what’s being communicated by how I say what I say is something negative and inferior. And then there’s that, well, I could speak in a way that more people felt comfortable with, but would that not on some level signal my agreement with the premise that the way I and the people around me speak is, in fact, unacceptable? That is, after all, how I tend to interpret it when people around here distance themselves from the common accent.

    In this case, yeah, it feels bad, but near as I can figure it, really the only practical consequence in my case is that people in other countries think I talk like a hick, and a few are kind of rude about it. I can shake that off pretty easily, because ultimately we’re not talking about high-stakes situations or the added complications of U.S. race and class politics. I used to be something of a grammar snob myself, but came out of linguistic study as a born-again descriptivist. The purpose of language is to communicate ideas, and if that’s happening successfully, I’m much less worried about how. I can’t pretend that I don’t have swift, automatic reactions to how other people talk and what I have been taught that means about them. But the ways we speak are so wrapped up in intentionality and identity, and the origin and meaning of each person’s style(s) are so complex, that these reactions are utterly worthless and need to be consciously struck down. (I’m not sure, though, that most people who benefit from them would agree.)

    *Does that go without explaining? (A language is a dialect with an army)

  • -k-

    oh, jesus christ, that was long. sorry.

  • glory

    “You be done messed up,” isn’t necessarily a misquote. In my experience, the words “be done” followed by a past tense verb mean that something “will have” happened. “You be done lost all your money at the slots tomorrow.” I don’t hear it up north as much as down south, but I’ve both heard and used that expression, and it has an appropriate context within the rules of our vernacular speech. I think you hit the nail on the head about context. There are some situations where speech like that is never appropriate, and others where it’s very permissible, or even encouraged.

    I also think that there is a certain quality and tone of voice that people use that can sound distinctively white/not-black, which is why we can often tell who we’re talking to on the phone without seeing them. Yet I think this has more to do with the sound of a voice than with grammatical patterns. My mother speaks wonderfully, but you can still tell she’s a black woman by the sound of her voice, even over the phone. I can code switch even better than she can, modifying my grammar AND the tone of my voice. Sometimes I code switch in tone as well as grammar, and I hate that I do it with tone – it feels disingenuous once I realize that I’m doing it – but code switching isn’t usually consciously done on my part, it just happens. For the record, I don’t think code switching with grammar is disingenuous.

  • As I told you last night GD I read this and was vaguely offended but got more resentful as a read on. Issues of whether dialects, creoles and pidgins constitute valid forms of communication is a pet peeve of mine (I have a whole masters dissertation written on it). Being able to speak the Standard is important for educational and social mobility purposes – I would never deny that. But I hate the reflexive knee-jerk reaction that some people have to anything that isn’t the standard, instantly writing it off as “broken” or “bastardized”.

    To assess the validity of a language you have to look at context but also cultural importance. AAVE serves a cultural purpose as do the Creoles we speak in the Caribbean. They hold our oral traditions and heritage. I think one should be facile in the Standard but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Metalinguistic awareness and active encouragement of code-switching is something I would love to see in classrooms. Indeed in the research I have done here at home, often it is very difficult to teach the Standard without grounding it in Creole and comparing and contrasting from there. It should be possible to preserve both.

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  • thinking of a name

    For me, who growing up was constantly told she “talked white”, in my experience, it was both about talking proper and talking white and I was often the out man because of it.

    “But many black South Siders, who came up from St. Louis/New Orleans during the Great Migration, have Southern-sounding drawls. … it wouldn’t surprise me that it might offend people who saw that way of speaking as familiar and beautiful, and saw her as opting out of it”

    The same can be said for those who love to hear white-sounding (lack of?) drawls, if that is in fact the standard.

  • thinking of a name

    GD: (repy is not working for me) In school I was told I talked white – because I spoke proper, and I was told (still get told, especially on the phone) talked like a white girl – I sounded like I was white. So for me it was, and is, both.

    Talking like a white girl works well when in a phone interview. Once, it worked too well, so well that when I went in for the actual interview and was waiting in HR the interviewer walked right past me and shook the hand of the only other person in the room with a suit on … who happened to be a white woman. When she looked at him like he was crazy and I came up and offered my hand the look of what little pigmentation he had leave his body was enough to tell me that I would not be getting that job …

  • socgrad

    This is a really interesting post and a tough topic overall. I don’t have anything substantive to add, just a personal perspective.

    I definitely was accused of “talking like a white girl” when I was young. I think part of it came from the fact that since I spent more time with adults than children my own age, I didn’t have a good grasp of current slang. And since reading was my main hobby, my vocabulary, grammar, and overall language usage was modeled more on books than conversation. Yeah, I was a big nerd as a child. Basically, the way I spoke as a child marked me as different in my working-class black neighborhood, which was translated into “talking like a white girl”.

    I pretty much talk the same way now, although I admit that I’ve dropped some of the more obvious aspects of my original south-Midwestern accent because, frankly, the Northeast is not a good place to sport an even vaguely Southern accent.

    Between my grammar, pacing, and fairly bland Midwestern accent, there have been more than a couple of occasions where I’ve had conversations with people on the phone and realized half way through (usually because of some WTF thing the person has just said about race) that the person on the other end doesn’t know that I’m black.

    Anyway, my $0.02.

  • thinking of a name

    GD: When it was school, trust, it was because I spoke proper. I even changed the way I spoke in school just so I would not have to hear it.

  • It’s funny how sometimes just inflection and/or tone–regardless of syntax, grammar, or word choice–can color how people hear you. When I lived in the UK, I picked up UK inflections, but kept the American pronunciations; nonetheless, at least one old lady in a shop said she thought I was British (when for some reason my being American was mentioned). It astonished my Brit friends, to whom I still sounded American, but then they knew I was.

    OTOH, the familiarity and casualness thing (not to mention my funky name) have led black telemarketers doing surveys to be surprised when I say I’m white–which I really don’t think is an accent thing (I sound a bit valley girl myself, actually). But I *can* do the down home girl mode of communication, b/c I learned it as a kid, from friends of color and as a survival strategy in mostly non-white schools. But like with the weird British thing, I’ve also had black friends laugh in disbelief when I tell them someone on the phone thought I was black.

    And, just to make it clear that the impression this comment has given so far of my priding myself on being down with the gente is unintentional, I’ll also confess to one of my most embarrassing moments while watching the Cosby Show spinoff that was set at Spelman (if I remember correctly), wondering out loud to a group of (mostly white) acquaintances why, if the show was set at a college that was known for high academic achievement, were all the characters speaking casual black English? The whole room fell silent, and to this day (given that most of the folks there were white), I’m not sure why, although I do know the answer to that question now and feel like a dumbass for having asked it.

  • This is a touchy issue for me because I got tagged for both talking white and acting white (and I contend that there are no such things, just ignorant-ass f@#$ers who throw salt on people), the double-whammy of race-treason in high school. When I was growing up, I had to forget Spanish to learn English with an American accent so the kids would not tease my Speedy Gonzalez-inflected speech (this was not in the United States nor in a white school, so please refrain from talking about privelage or whatever :) ), which was actually great for me because it taught me self-confidence and willpower so when I grew older and I ran into another group of stupid kids who insulted my choice of friends, tv, language, etc I could effectively give all of them the middle-finger. Good times.

    Having said that, I think the first half of the passage is actually quite accurate in terms of the need to communicate with as many people as possible, and his defense of Madame Obama, while salty and classist at the end, is fairly solid. I mean, what we want is equal respect for all, not attacks on intelligence for speaking in vernacular English. That also means no attacks for speaking SAE.

  • ladyfresshh

    This is the part that struck my interest:

    The clerk at the Vitamin Shoppe that I hit up on the way back from my gym is a dark-skinned black girl who speaks with hard vowels and peppers her speech with ‘like’; she sounds like a Valley Girl. To my ears, she sounds ‘white’, but I’d never suggest she sounds ‘proper.’ On the other hand, there are people like, say, Michael Eric Dyson. Leaving aside his penchant for grandiloquence/ostentatious polysyllabism, his English is ‘proper’. But few people would mistake him for white.

    I don’t know if i’ve ever seen this acknowledged before, I like that slang and accent has been separated and also acknowledged has having different effects.

    i guess i should take a side at this point.
    my sentiment is pretty much with universeexpanding. I’ve seen how my mother’s latin accent, father’s southern accent, friend’s from the neighborhood bklyn/latino/black accent-inflections-slang mark them for segregation and oddly(and sadly) mark me for inclusion, it was still hurtful as a witness

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  • rengeko

    i have certainly heard people being accused of “talking white.” but i can tell you that it’s not just blacks who run into this-i moved to the south (louisiana and arkansas) as a child, and i can assure you that i encountered a lot of …classism? for my speech. even now, as an adult in kansas, i am mocked for my speech. like the commenter above, i also learned much of my speech and grammar from books-it appears that books are not much favored by the people i ran into. oh, in case it wasn’t clear, i am white. i think it is important to be able to speak properly-but certainly in casual situations community vernacular is appropriate.

  • paradigm

    Thank You So Much!!!

    I’m from Charleston, SC and many of us speak Gullah. It’s a dialect that many just don’t understand and it’s so infuriating when people poke fun at they way we speak. We have phrases unique to us and an accent on top of that. Sometimes people instantly judge us or think we don’t know proper English because of it. Thank you for getting it. :)

  • aisha

    sounding white vs. using proper speech vs. sounding like a valley girl. You’ve solved one of the mysteries of my life. I’ve been accused of all three both by black and white people. It really didn’t make sense but the distinctions you point out cleared that up for me.

  • elizabetta

    g- I just checked out this post & wanted to contribute my thoughts. my parents are both from Boston- big Irish-Catholic families who lived in the city. And when I say city, I don’t mean suburbs like Newton or Wellesley. I mean South Boston, and Hyde Park, back when it was mostly Irish. They live in Virginia now. Everyone in the family has those almost movie-sensation Boston accents- except my parents. My dad has lost his completely (due to us moving around because he was in the military) and my Mom’s speech has morphed into SAE, while she struggles not to drop her R’s. My brothers & I used to laugh at her pronunciation of short [“SHAWT”] car {“CAH”] and purse [“pocketbook”] hahahah. When she talks to her eight sisters on the phone, and when we see family, they mock her for “pretending” she doesn’t talk like them. It’s almost a passive-aggressive attempt to accuse her of leaving the homestead- and rejecting its cultures and mores- and characteristically thick accent. I don’t think this is a white thing, or a black thing although clearly it happens in many different communities- I agree with the posters above who characterized it as an insider-outsider affair. Accents are cultural currency and bring with them history and connection and faith. Losing one can be threatening to the group and can come with a price, even if you have gained something else at the expense.

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