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Culture, Essays

Yas Queen: Black Culture, Women and Language

As of this writing, there are ongoing protests in the United States against racism and police brutality. Ignited by the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, millions of citizens have united to protest the structural racism that the black community endures. I am not a person of colour so I can’t claim to know what this is like. It feels wrong to speak on their lived experience when I can never fully comprehend it. But I stand in solidarity with the movement and can use my privileged status in society to educate others. As an ally to their cause, I want to explore and celebrate one of the black community’s many contributions to culture: language. In particular, the influence women of colour have on the creation and spread of language.

When we hear someone speak we make judgments, both consciously and unconsciously, about that speaker. We may place a value of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on their dialect, and subsequently on the speaker. A ‘good’ variant is considered the standard; prestigious, acceptable, and ‘correct’. By contrast, ‘bad’ variants are associated with non-standard dialects; they are seen as crude, uneducated, and ‘wrong’. These judgements have serious implications in practically every dimension of society. Although there are several sources of variation, social class and socioeconomic status provide a clear explanation for these judgments.

Language and Power (or lack thereof)

Labov, one of the early pioneers in the field of sociolinguistics, conducted a landmark study in the 1960s focusing on the relationship between language variety and social class in New York City. His hypothesis, that “if any two subgroups of NYC speakers are ranked in a scale of social stratification, then they will be ranked in the same order by their differential use of (r)”, was correct. For him, social stratification “…produced systematic difference between certain institutions or people” and these forms were “…ranked in status or prestige by general agreement”. In this, the use of the nonstandard variety of English was dominant among working class individuals. (This refers to the stereotypical New York accent). Thus, a direct connection was made between language and socioeconomic status.

Writing about this study decades later, Guy noted that rhoticity, or lack thereof, was “a social marker for this community: an arbitrarily defined feature of language that indicates something about the social status of speakers and the situational context in which they are speaking”. In this sense, language is more than just a means of communication. It is intricately laced into our identities, both influencing and being influenced by our self-conceptualizations. Language “identifies the speaker as belonging to a particular group, or having a particular social identity”. Once an individual is placed in a group, it can be difficult to detach yourself from it.

Part of our identity derives from our actual, or perceived, power and status in society.

Status refers to “whether people are respected and deferred to by others in their society”. Power is the “social and material resources a person can command, the ability to make decisions and influence”. These are directly linked to language and its various forms. Those who conform to the language norm will often be rewarded with higher social class and greater life prospects.

There is a reason that politicians, CEOs and other influential people sound similar; they share a language variant that is considered acceptable and have thus benefited from increased opportunities. Moreover, individuals are more likely to respect and listen to someone that they judge to be speaking ‘correctly’. This creates a reinforcing cycle. Speakers of standard varieties are rewarded with greater status and more opportunities, and thus individuals who wish to achieve this same social standing must adopt the prestigious variety. Unfortunately, this group is disproportionately white, male, and straight. The black community, especially women, is almost completely excluded from powerful positions. This is why as of 2018, women of color represent less than 9 percent of members of Congress and 2 percent of governors. There are currently no black women leading Fortune 500 companies, and the majority of these companies have no women of colour serving as board directors.

Dialects and Power

By extension, dialects are varieties that are “linguistically and generally also politically linked to a standardized language variety” that is considered ‘proper’. Some dialects are considered acceptable, others are not. These assessments are inextricably linked to other factors, such as race and socioeconomic status. Language is not just a means of communication; it also reveals our identity and divides us into different groups.

A group can either gain or lose power and status by being associated with a certain variant. Speakers of ‘improper’ dialects are thus viewed interchangeably with the dialect itself. This means that two individuals who are otherwise identical will be perceived differently based on the way they speak. Language is a powerful marker of identity, and it is difficult to overcome the obstacles faced by a speaker of a non-standard dialect.

The Dominance of “Good” Variants

When considering what makes a variant ‘good’, it is important to consider it in both a social and historical context. Good varieties embody ‘traditional’ force; they have the weight of a long internal tradition of emerging and consolidated power”. This is self-reinforcing; the characteristic of dominance becomes an inherent quality.. This means that ‘good’ variants often have a longstanding, deeply entrenched status.

Ethnic majorities are “groups that hold social and political power, and, therefore, whose practices and beliefs become established as a norm”. By nature of its standardization as a norm, all other non-conforming variants are thus different or considered to be ‘other’. Minority groups are labeled in ways which emphasise [their] status as outsiders. Members of ‘prestigious’ groups “can impose their language and literacy practices as normative” and thus have a strategic advantage over those who cannot. Thus, the power and esteem, or lack thereof, associated with a variant becomes part of its identity. ‘Good’ variants are viewed as normal, and any deviation is automatically different. The extent to which a dialect is accepted or stigmatized is based on other societal factors. A Midwest accent is considered more prestigious than a Southern one, even though they are both forms of English. Geographical location and socioeconomic class served to create these variants, and assigned them each a value.

Moreover, language and dialect formation are directly linked to history and human movement. Creation of new variants and changes to existing ones can be tracked over time. During colonization, many societies had a ‘standard language’ imposed by force. Although other European countries did this, it was most prolific within the British empire. English is the current lingua franca, in no small part due to its spread across the world during a specific period of increased globalization. This was particularly evident in slave communities, whose members had thriving and unique languages prior to contact. This combination has resulted in fascinating creoles and pidgin varieties, with elements from several languages. However, these variants are almost always considered inferior, by nature of their historical origins. 

AAVE and Women

One well-known example of a so-called ‘bad’ variant is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is a complex dialect with its own rules and structure. The perceptions of this dialect are extended to its speakers, who are primarily African Americans. This has serious consequences; these speakers have an inherent disadvantage when it comes to education and career prospects. Speakers of AAVE are assumed to be unintelligent or low-class, regardless of their actual capabilities. Many of these individuals are forced to adopt a standard form of English in certain settings, in an attempt to be perceived in a better light. This is an unfortunate reality, and it reinforces the notion that non-standard dialects are inferior or ‘worse than’ prestige variants.

As Wiley and Lukes point out, “for speakers of creolized and – allegedly – less ‘literate’ varieties of English, the lack of proficiency in the standard becomes a means by which others can use language as an instrument to maintain boundaries of social stratification“. Many individuals are dismissed and discriminated against in part because of how they speak. They are automatically viewed as uneducated, uninformed, and unable to contribute to mainstream society in a meaningful way. They have no power or authority. These individuals are often faced with poor prospects, and are restrained by the dominant societal perception of their abilities.  

Women experience this kind of prejudice in many ways; women of colour even more so. In general, language evolution is driven by women. Labov maintained that the leaders of linguistic change tend to be working or lower middle class “women with a particular ability to confront established norms and the motivation to defy them.”. Despite this, women endure sexism and are often criticized for the way they speak.

As Gretchen McColluch notes, “Our society takes middle-aged men more seriously than young women for a whole host of reasons, so it’s only logical that we have also been conditioned to automatically respect the tone and cadence of the typical male voice, as well as their word choices.” Add to this the intersectionality of race and gender, and the result is women of colour facing disproportionate criticism and mockery for the way they speak. Although all minorities experience this to some degree, women within the black community are often the most common target.

Interestingly, the words that become popular in mainstream English often originate from conversation within the black community. AAVE is responsible for many neologisms that eventually make their way into mainstream speech; terms such as “bae”, “on fleek”, or “throwing shade” all originated in the ‘wrong’ variety of American English.  These terms have all circulated amongst black women in their daily discourse, but their use is seen as slang.  Once they start to diffuse into mainstream language, their connotation changes. You start to see white women screen-print these on t-shirts and they appear on décor and wine glasses. These words are often considered ‘ruined’ when white people start using them. Often, the original meaning and context is lost and the result is simply a cringy overuse of the term.

In this way, speakers of the ‘inferior’ dialect are able to reclaim power; they are not only creating new words, but they are also deciding if they are trendy or not. By controlling the value of these words, they separate themselves from other groups and position themselves as arbiters of popular culture.

Code Switching and Identity

The implications of these distinctions are great and far ranging. By placing a value on a dialect, we characterize every speaker of it identically, regardless of whether or not they embody all of the common stereotypes. Prestige varieties will always enjoy higher social esteem and respect.

There is an interesting distinction between overt and covert prestige. Overt prestige is the most tangible form; it is associated with upper class, educated, high status individuals. Conversely, covert prestige simmers below, in the form of solidarity among speakers of the same variety and a desire to belong in a group.

This can be seen among speakers in the black community, and is particularly interesting to observe in those who can and do code-switch. These individuals switch between mainstream English and AAVE depending on the situation. They will often use AAVE in scenarios where they want to identify as black, and ‘standard’ English when they don’t. This can sometimes lead to conflict with other members of the community who view this as inauthentic, and can cause personal issues with identity and self-perception. It can be viewed as assimilation into white culture and a betrayal of your in-group.

Dialects are an important aspect of a group’s identity, and the choice to not adopt the dominant or standard one is purposeful.  The knowledge that negative stereotypes about a group’s speech exist elsewhere can serve to increase the level of in-group solidarity rather than decrease it. This is revealing; it demonstrates that group solidarity is ultimately more important than the potential for mobility or change in status. Even though speakers are aware that their dialect is not considered ‘prestigious’, they continue to use the non-standard variety. The very fact that the black community continues to use a ‘wrong’ variant is significant to their culture and identity.

Language and Stereotypes

The United States, in particular, is susceptible to this process. There is visible difference between northern and southern dialects, with the north seen as the standard variety. This has resulted in southern dialects being mocked in mainstream media, which only serves to reinforce negative perceptions. Individuals from the southern American states are often portrayed as unintelligent and uneducated, and this is most obvious when actors and comedians imitate, and often exaggerate, their dialect. The black community is particularly susceptible to this mockery, especially women. The entrenched effects of slavery continue to plague them.

These generalized impressions become stereotypes of the group they are assumed to represent. Often, such stereotypes become part of one’s cultural background – one’s frame of reference. Our perceptions of these speakers are directly tied to the non-standard variety of English they possess. When we hear these dialects, we immediately paint a picture of its speakers, one that is not always based on reality. The black community is particularly susceptible to negative stereotypes and prejudice.

Language is a great unifier and an equally powerful separator.

When we hear a particular dialect, we automatically think of associated traits, characteristics and stereotypes. Language is one of the most notable markers of the ever growing chasm between majority and minority groups. This has dangerous implications for future unity; there is a growing sense that there are two different ‘countries’ within America. If the way you speak is considered “acceptable”, then you will benefit from increased opportunities in practically every facet of life. If you do not, you will face obstacles and discrimination regardless of any other qualities you possess. Although linguistically there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ variants, it is difficult to separate our conceptions of an individuals or group from how they speak.

What can you do as an ally?

1. Acknowledge your bias: Bias is always lurking. You may not consider yourself overtly racist, but if you are honest with yourself you will admit that you have judged an individual based on how they speak. You have to recognize this in order to change your perception.

2. Remember that “slang” use doesn’t equate to anything: Two people can say the same thing in two different ways. That doesn’t mean one is smarter or more able than the other. Dialects like AAVE have rich and cohesive semantic and syntactical structures; they are as fully formed as any other variety of English. The use of AAVE by the black community doesn’t mean they are inferior.

3. Call out racism and bias when you see it: Silence is complicity. By ignoring acts of prejudice, you are helping to sustain it. Fire needs oxygen to survive; it only dies when it’s completely smothered. Racism is much the same; it takes acts big and small to put it out. If you see someone making fun of how a black person speaks, or associating it with other nasty stereotypes, it is up to you to call it for what it is.

Dialects such as AAVE are one of the most apparent and easily accessible sources of identity. It is used by the powerful as a tool to bludgeon and oppress these groups, yet it remains a unifier and source of identity for the black community. The continued use of the dialect is a powerful act of resistance.

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