Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill all are credited with some version of: “England and America are two countries separated by one language.” That differing versions of a supposedly common language can create barriers applies within America.
Language variants have created an issue between Blacks and whites and also within the Black community—as if there was just one. In the 1960s, “Black English” ignited numerous discussions about whether African Americans should “talk white.” Additionally, wearing certain clothes or getting good grades in school were derided by some as “acting white.” Common ground among races became harder to find.
The linguist John McWhorter, who is Black, presents important thoughts in a May 3 New York Times article. In “Blackness and Standard English Can Coexist. Professors, Take Note,” McWhorter writes about the teaching of composition in universities, and which language usage is appropriate. “ . . . the notion that standard English is exterior to Black students’ real selves requires a closer look, because it tracks with worrisome currents in the way we are encouraged to think about race, especially lately.”
Summarizing McWhorter: Blacks can—and many wish to—speak and write in both Black and standard English. Black Americans long have been “ . . . doing what other people do worldwide, living between two varieties of a language.”
What’s the problem if African Americans insist in communicating only in Black English? I’ve long posited that as Wilde, Shaw and Churchill implied, language can bring people closer or create a chasm between them. This involves two critical components.
The first is understanding. Differing dialects may include words whose meanings are misunderstood or not understood at all. We say or write something because we know what we mean. In truth, communication among speakers of the same language or dialect is difficult enough. “Outside” listeners or readers often fail to grasp what is thought to be obvious. Nuances count. Meaning gets lost.
Then there’s comfort. This gets sticky, because differing local or ethnic vocabulary, sentence structure and pronunciation aren’t in themselves bad. But people tend to be more comfortable with others who speak like them. I’ve long theorized that a common English can bridge at least some gaps between American subgroups by relaxing fears and apprehension of “the other.”
As to speaking one way at home and another in the public square, most Americans have long done this. I use occasional Yiddish and Hebrew words and expressions with family and fellow Jews. It’s comfortable, and sometimes those words and phrases create a shortcut to understanding.
I use standard English with other folks who won’t understand words outside their own vocabulary. (That said, words from many languages and dialects have become common in many communities across the nation. Lots of non-Jews understand what it means to fall on your tuchus (anglicized tush) or shlep to work.
Hopefully, teachers distancing Black and other students from standard English will undergo second thoughts and seek to bring them closer to all Americans rather than pursue an agenda driving us apart.
As John McWhorter wrote, “Linguistically, Black Americans can and do walk and chew gum at the same time, like countless people around the world—and like it.”
Switching gears between versions of American English isn’t new. Supporting linguistic barriers is getting old.
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