“Code-switching” is a linguistic term that describes what occurs when multilingual speakers alternate among languages within short phrases. When my urban students in New Haven do this, they say they are speaking “Spanglish”. Indeed this is commonly heard, as the U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost thirteen percent of the population of the United States speaks Spanish as a second language.
It should be noted that code-switching is a normal occurrence in places that are multilingual, and among populations of newly-arrived immigrants. The term is also currently used to reference the practice of shifting between vernacular and formal language, especially among African Americans.
In the United States, a nation of immigrants, we are no strangers to this phenomenon, and yet the use of dialect and mixing languages often comes under fire and is frequently used to denigrate and negatively stereotype groups who are not proficient English speakers. In literature, however, these rich and varied forms of language are inimitable vehicles for expressing profound cultural textures and are vital to portraying intimacy, identity and origin. For writers, language variations are the tender fibers of characterization.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
to correct the dialect of Jim. In 2011, Mark Twain’s masterpiece
frankly bowdlerized, sanitized of an offending racial epithet, presumably so teachers could present it more comfortably to high school students.
Uncomfortable as this epithet is, our difficult job is not to hide controversy, but to show students truths, even ugly ones, and give them the voice to stand up for themselves. What better way to instruct students, especially those who are marginalized, than to allow them to voice their opinions on controversial issues, especially ones that deeply concern them? Vernacular language often contains elements that are more than unconventional: it uncomfortably challenges more than the structure of the language spoken by those in power. These differences are more than expletives and epithets, but also can incorporate clever code or slang that speakers of Standard English may not understand.
As with any aspect of culture, linguistic differences were used to stereotype and demean minority groups, including African Americans, immigrants, and poverty-stricken people of the American South. While other cultural voices assimilated into the American voice, the segregation of African Americans has allowed a continuation of rich variety and difference in American English through centuries of our nation’s history, shaped uniquely by race. Through the twentieth century, stark differences in pronunciation, grammar and usage were not only delineated by region, but widespread enough so that a controversy arose when some educators proposed teaching this dialect as a new entity called Ebonics.
Differences in spoken language became the music that determined race, ethnicity and social class, and the use of African American dialect as opposed to “correct” English became intensely politicized.
The controversy surrounding the “Negro,” more precisely, the Gullah dialect in George Gershwin’s
Porgy and Bess
is one example, with both liberal white and educated African Americans decrying the production as racist.
, an undisputed literary masterpiece is still banned for the casual use of a hateful racial epithet and for Twain’s portrayal of Jim, who speaks in dialect, as inherently racist. William Faulkner would face the same criticism in his depiction of African American characters.
And black authors, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Zora Neale Hurston would suffer the same leveling criticism, mostly from black intellectuals, notably Richard Wright,
for using dialect as a means of cultural and artistic expression.
However, it is important for students to view the use of authentic speech artistically, and separate it from the belief that it only serves to perpetuate a racial stereotype almost universally perceived as negative, ignorant, and subservient. It is interesting to note that controversy only arises when the art form crosses racial lines or becomes provocative – lyrics of blues songs and Gospel music did not suffer the same criticism when they stayed in the black community. Rock and roll and later, rap and hip-hop music would face dire excoriation from Americans, white and black. The criticism was launched not only at expletives, but dialect and character portrayals as well, fearing these would either be a further provocation of African American anger or a continuance of racist stereotypes.
This forms continuing controversy in assessing hip-hop music today: Has the music indeed become a means to perpetuate an image of young black men as violent misogynists? Tricia Rose, author of
The Hip-Hop Wars
argues that hip-hop has been co-opted to sell records, regardless of the damage it adds to young men who already bear prodigious burdens of racism and isolation. She writes, “We must be more honest in thinking how black ghetto gangsta-based sales are the
of marketing manipulation and the
not only of specific realities in our poorest black urban communities but also of the
of already-imbedded racist fears about black people.”
This unit proposes to open this uncomfortable door. To a large extent, the variations in “black” speech have already blended with the masses, along with a lot of criticism targeting dialect. But then again, even residual subtle linguistic differences draw stark societal lines, some of them creating barriers in educational opportunities and jobs. When we teach our students language, we of course must firmly expect all students to learn to use clear and precise, grammatically correct, eloquent
English. Eldridge Cleaver, writing in the Los Angeles Times criticized the teaching of Ebonics as a standard language: “African Americans are linguistically creative and have enriched the English language.” But he also argued that “The only place for Ebonics is the streets. We don't need it in the classroom; we need to rescue kids from Ebonics, the illegitimate offspring of the shotgun wedding of ebony and phonics.”
Still, we should not forget that language is living and literature is an art form, and here is no place for conformity. Where to begin?