Talkin' Black

Unlike Ambra, I have never been accused of talking "white." Never. When I was 14, I called a rental car place and the agent thought I was a woman, but that was about all the vocal mistaking I've ever had to deal with. To my knowledge, nobody has ever heard me speak and then turned around and been surprised when they saw me. And in my case, it's by choice. Ambra does a good job of separating the components of "talking white" into elements of linguistic strucure and vocal intonation. That's an important distinction to make. When I hear some knucklehead talking about standard English synonomously with talking white, I have to check him real quick. Those two are not the same. Now, right up front, I'll tell you that I don't use the phrase "proper English" or "talking proper" or any construction that suggests rightness or wrongness. Language, like water, is shaped by its container. What's right and wrong or good and bad depends almost solely on the context. When I wrote about cussin a couple months ago, I used the shoe analogy. Just like I can't wear sneakers (or gym shoes if you grew up in the Midwest like I did) when I go to the club on Saturday night, I can't jump out talkin any which-a-way in certain situations. It's just improper. At the same time, I can't rock my Stacy Adams wing-tips when I get ready to shoot some ball. That's just not the way it's done. Likewise, when I hafta do a presentation, there's a certain manner of speaking that I must appropriate in order for my ideas to be received. Same thing goes on the corner, though. Or if you remember Airplane, that brother would'a died if that old white chick hadn'a known how to talk Jive. So as far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing as proper English. The English language is a hodge-podge amalgam of countless sources. There is almost no universal consistency. (I have two homes with rodents, so I have houses with mice. What? House -> houses but mouse -> mice? And that's just the first one that popped into my head. Everybody who reads this and everybody they talk to can come up with at least 5 examples of their own.) I know the rules of English because I grew up speaking it, but that don't mean the rules make sense. If it's arbitrary, then there can no good or bad, only appropriate or inappropriate. Recognize. Vocal intonation, on the other hand, more closely approximates my concept of what talking white means, if it actaually has any meaning. Ambra uses the example of Alan Keyes as one of those brothers who would shock you to death if you heard him before you saw him. She's correct in saying that there is no genetic pronunciation. There is, however, regional dialect. You can take the word "region" however you want, because at every level there are some linguistic distinctions, whether you wanna talk about national, groups of states, individual states, counties, metropolitan areas, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, or households. People talk like the people who surround them. Period. As anybody who's studied linguistic formation in children can tell you, babies babble in all languages. That is, they make the sounds necessary to speak in any language. It's only as they are spoken to by their parents and the people around them that they repeat certain sounds and drop off the others, which gives them their native tongue. For a long time, I wanted to adopt an Asian child so he could grow up talking with the same rubber band tongue as me. In that respect, then, he might be said to be "talking Black," although he really wouldn't, because that would be his natural speech pattern. To say that someone is "talking [insert race]" insinuates a certain degree of performance; "he don't really talk like that, he just tryin'a front for those people." But when I said it's regional dialect, I meant more than just the way certain words sound. The other element of dialect is vocabulary. Vocabulary is a subject that's near and dear to my heart. I'm a word nerd. I read Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Twain with highlighters, so I can jump on hot expressions when I come across them. Now most Black folks are at best 3-4 generations from the South, so that Southern dialect is still a major influence. I think it was Hurston who described Southern speech as coming from the land and being particularly picturesque and thick with simile. I don't feel like getting up and finding the exact quote, but it's out there somewhere. And it's the truth. That, I think is one of the great limitations of that New York-Washington axis of Standard English. There's no real creativity in it, no room for delicious new variety of speech to tickle the tongue. I think that's partially why hip-hop has taken hold the way it has, because in addition to all the other elements, sometimes it's just nice to say things because they're fun to say or because it's a creative way to express a common thought. Nobody tried to holler at me when I brought it up before, but truth be told, talkin' fly part of what makes people think it's cool to be a pimp. You gotta have game to be a pimp; your verbal dexterity gotta be stronger than Bluto. And this is not to make some binary pair out of the issue, like black talk is creative while white talk is rigid and inflexible, because it doesn't break down along racial lines like that. However, there's a reason I liken Standard English to a Stacy Adams shoe while SBV (or just about any non-mainstream dialect, for that matter) is a sneaker. The latter is much more flexible and much, much more playful. That's why there aren't that many white cats who can do the dozens. My own use of language is informed by the fact I just like words. Some proper, some vulgar, some long and very literate-sounding, some monosyllabic grunts. I just like the way some words taste in my mouth. Once in a poetry class, I made, in haiku form, Doritos a metaphor for the word "motherfuker." Other people may not like the residue, but it just tastes good. Same thing goes for "callipygous," only callipygous has the added benefit of being an uncommon word for a very common thought, so I could be ribald and cerebral and speaking in code (talking sanskrit, one of my friends calls it) all at the same time. But even beyond regular words, I like to make up words when I just feel like it. In some post over the last couple months, I broke out "exorcistic," as in the exorcistic beating Jack Johnson laid on Jim Jeffries; he beat the devil out of him. So for a while I was talking about being exorcistically confused or whatever. Then I took it to the scatological next step, laxativistic. I don't care if it's not a "real" word, it gets my point across. Same thing with the seating chart. They're just words, there for us to play with and enjoy. Water's good for work, but it's also good for play. Same thing here. The idea of "talking white" is both understandable and utter nonsense at the same time. If I had grown up with a white family from suburban Chicago, I would sound like they do. If I had grown up with a white family from Biloxi, I would sound like they do, but I bet I'd only get 1/2 as many comments about sounding white. Based on this construction, I believe that "talking white" has as much to do with class line as racial lines. In other words, if you read Huckleberry Finn, it's clear that Huck and Jim don't talk the same. But neither of them sounds anything like the narrator in Tom Sawyer. Likewise, I know of students who take classes to scrub the Southern dialect from their tongues so they can sound more "white," if you will. It's not about race, it's about power. Northern Standard English acts as a gatekeeper. If I want access to certain levels of power or prestige, I must communicate in a certain way, using a certain pronunciation and certain idioms. It just be's that way sometimes.