Monday, May 26, 2008

The Way I Talk

When I first moved to California, I went to a lot of concerts, and one of them was Gil Scott-Heron. That would have been at the Berkeley Greek Theater, an outdoor amphitheater. During one of the breaks I went over to the porta-potties for the usual reason, and there was a line, as is generally the case during the breaks. While waiting in line, I got to talking with a couple of young ladies from Oakland. The young ladies were black.

It was a very pleasant conversation, and afterwards, I tried to analyze why I had felt so comfortable. Their young lady-hood obviously was part of it, but it occurred to me that part of it was their accents and manners.

What has come to be called “Ebonics” is actually a large sub-variant of the southern accent and grammatical quirks. My relationship to the southern way of talking is complicated, of course, given that I grew up in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky, then left for what still seem to be very good reasons. Nevertheless, I have the same reflexive it’s-okay-for-me-to-criticize-but-not-for-you-to-do-so that everyone has about their family, town, state, and country. Added to that is something that I’ve mentioned previously: speaking with a southern accent means that people automatically make all sorts of assumptions about you, including that you are dumb and ignorant.

The black conservative economist Thomas Sowell has written that Ebonics (as well as a number of other features of “Black Culture”) is actually derived from “Cracker Culture,” which in turn was a English/Scots transplant that was pushed on African slaves by their white overseers. One of the features of my mild prejudice in favor of blacks is that I tend to cut black conservatives a little more slack than I do white conservatives, so I lean toward the belief that Sowell believes that American blacks are held back by their culture and would do better if they got rid of it—akin to my own ditching of my southern accent, for example. Nevertheless, Sowell tells only half the story.

The reason why people in the south, both black and white, talk the way they do is partly informed by slaves learning English from Scots overseers, but once that happened, some of the slaves then became the house servants of the southern plantation owners. In particular, they assisted the plantation owners’ wives in household duties, including child care and child rearing. In many cases, they served as wet nurses.

Guess who the children learned to speak from? There have been cases recently of largely absent parents being shocked when their children began to speak Spanish, or Tagalog, or whatever the native language of the main care-giver. In the case of the old south, they learned to speak from the negro slaves, who spoke a creole compounded from Scots grammar and African intonation. In other words, the slave owners began to speak like African-Americans. And when the wealthiest and socially prominent members of a community talk in a certain way, the rest of the community tends to begin talking that way.

The way you speak marks your social class. Every upwardly mobile young person learns this quickly, and the lucky ones are good at dialect. If you are reading a newspaper story, and the word “articulate” is used, chances are that it is being applied to a black person, even if race is not mentioned in the article. It’s one of the standard code phrases, and it means that—surprisingly—the black person doesn’t sound dumb.

Similarly, I would advise any black high school student to work on their accent. The best thing would be to somehow arrange to live in England for a little while and to develop a trace of a British accent. That adds about the same number of assumed I.Q. points that a southern accent subtracts. But any non-Ebonic, non-southern derived accent will do. It’s just part of the tool kit.

A couple of years ago, I was listening to some NOVA special (some PBS thing, at any rate), and one of the speakers sounded familiar. It took a little while for me to place it; he sounded a lot like me. In reaction to a former southern accent, the speaker slightly overemphasized the trailing consonants of words. So while the southern accent says walkin’, thereby dropping the trailing “g”, the reformed southern accent says walking, slightly overemphasizing the trailing “g.”

There are some other features, no doubt. One place to hear them is on Comedy Central, either Dave Chappelle or Stephen Colbert. Chappelle is black and Colbert is from South Carolina. In some ways, it’s the same thing.


black dog barking said...

Many years ago the construction of a couple of coal-fired power plants in western Nebraska enticed some young natives with the promise of high wages and a four day work week. The general contractor was from South Carolina as were, predictably, all of top management. As a part of first day orientation the (white) HR manager sternly warned us that "going into an igloo for a piece of ass" would result in on the spot termination. He repeated the warning for emphasis although repetition gave us no further clue as to what he meant.

Over the course of the next few days we patched together the meaning of that dire warning. "Igloo", it turned out, was the brand name of big plastic insulated water bottles conveniently placed all over the job site. Where "going into" implied moving one's whole body in our parlance (going into a room, a building, etc), in the vernacular of our South Carolina overlords one could "go into" one's wallet and pull out a $5 bill. Finally, a "piece of ass", as voiced in high South Carolinian, referenced water in its solid state.

James Killus said...

I am, as they say, impressed. I think I'd have gotten the "ass/ice" part, but, well, you never know.

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