The Code-Switching Life.

Kory Stamper has a great post called “In Defense of Talking Funny” that starts with a friend, or “friend,” interrupting her in “a crowded, chichi restaurant” to say “You’re saying that wrong.”

“What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.”

In the first place, can you imagine having the gall to “correct” a lexicographer on her pronunciation? (I know a lot of people don’t like the word, but it’s a classic example of “mansplaining.”) Anyway, she goes on to say “Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they’ve been dislocated,” and explains:

To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic, tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a “dialect.” Most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn’t be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.

And then she says, “I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong”:

I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”

I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.

“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

And then she goes on to tell how she did the exact same thing to her own daughter, despite her professional knowledge and her best intentions. It’s a wonderful essay and a stirring call for acceptance: “After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there.” Read the whole thing!

Comments

  1. I say /tordz/ myself, with my raised NORTH=FORCE vowel. No schwa, no /w/.

  2. I used to tease my grandfather the ancestrally English one, when he would chide me about speaking too fast and slurring, that it was only English so what difference did it make? I had just come back from a year in Sweden and I was studying Chinese, and English sounded coarse and graceless. (The idiocy of youth.) It was street language, so I was going to talk street. (My grandfather on the Irish side of the family had had “becuz” beaten out of him in parochial school and “be CAUSE” beaten into him, so he had no patience with any kind of prissiness around language. Besides, to him it was only English, so why bother? Greek and Latin were what he had spent his efforts on.

  3. … back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in.

    This suggests a way to avoid squabbling over dialects.

    “Trying to fit in” is something that almost everybody does, at whatever age – while at the same time trying to be something special. In various societies, at various points in time, different techniques to achieve those goals have been available.

    In modern, “polycontextural” societies, it has become acceptable, indeed necessary, to behave differently in different situations, at different times of day. A “person” is no longer expected to be a static collection of logically consistent behaviors and beliefs. Apparent inconsistencies are now resolved in the time dimension (as L*hm*nn might put it), even over the course of one day.

    This is not completely new. For example, take the fact that at home you can let your hair down, while at work or in church you must keep it combed (this has been acceptable for a long time in America). The inconsistency (hair can’t be combed and unkempt all at once) was resolved in favor of choice in the social dimension. The public/private distinction was used to subdivide each side of the right/wrong distinction, regardless of time of day. In public certain behavior is right, other behavior is wrong. In private certain behavior is right, other behavior is wrong.

    But the boundaries between public and private have become hard to track. What we find now is a multitude of social contexts (“polycontextural”), in each of which different kinds of behavior are approved/disapproved. The notions of right and wrong are still around, but are appealed to primarily when conflicts arise between contexts. Right and wrong just don’t have the overarching motivational oomph they used to possess.

    Nevertheless the right/wrong distinction is still used by many people (parents, for instance) in attempts to motivate others (their children, in this instance) to always do one thing, no matter what the time of day and no matter what the situation. I think this is the root cause of the squabbling over “how people should speak”.

    Perhaps parents, educators, pundits etc. should learn to tone down their one-size-fits-all notions of right and wrong, and instead enable their kids to learn different techniques to deal with the different situations that will inexorably confront them. What kids need to learn is that the world is larger than their neighborhood, and things sometimes work differently in these two areas – just as with public and private. In the neigborhood people may be used to “I’m done my homework”, in business situations in a different, wider neighborhood people are used to “I’ve done my homework”.

    One-size-fits-all notions of right and wrong are lazy notions.

  4. Great anecdotes, Jim !

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I definitely have two syllables in “towards” but the first one is very weak — about midway between a /U/ and a /@/.

  6. Stu has most elegantly expressed, particularly in his penultimate graf, what I have tried to say many times here, context is all. One of our nieces uses “like” continually, but if we ask her, for instance over the dinner table, not to use it, she can switch off instantly and for the rest of the evening. As she is studying law, she knows she will have to be able to do that in professional life.

  7. I say /t(ə)ˈwoːrdz/ with FORCE and not NORTH. Which doesn’t match the spelling, but hey.

    I see that MW lists tə-ˈwȯrdz and ˈtwōrdz but not tə-ˈwōrdz

  8. As I sing it:

    “Becuz, becuz, becuz, becuz, becuz / Becuz of the wonderful things he duz / The wonderful things he duz / We’re off to see the Wizard / The wonderful wizard of Ahz.”

    Oh well, can’t win ‘em all. (To be sure, for me “be CAUSE” would be “becaws”, thanks to that pesky CLOTH=THOUGHT merger.)

  9. Perhaps parents, educators, pundits etc. should learn to tone down their one-size-fits-all notions of right and wrong

    Some of us have been struggling with it for years; it’s difficult not only for the teachers but even more so for the taught. Consider as a simple (?) example the verbal expression of a desire not to participate in some activity. At home, there are activities that my grandson Dorian (who is now five) may refuse to do and others that he must not. In the first instance he may make his views known with I don’t wanna, The hell with this, or Fuck it more or less indifferently, according to the customs of our household. In the classroom, not only is the dichotomy set differently, but the use of the terms has variable acceptability. He can freely use the first, doubtfully the second, and absolutely not the third, according to the customs of the school. Naturally he gets it wrong quite often, and is criticized, ostracized, or otherwise punished for it. I have every sympathy for him: surely it would be easier on him if the matter were more like knowing his letters, which everyone around agrees is a Good Thing. Yet such consistency is a luxury that society can no longer afford.

  10. Thanks, Paul ! At least one person has explicitly understood my point <* sheds tear of resignation *>. I was not aware of your views on context. Maybe if you put them forward more forcefully they will penetrate my head. I rely on forcefulness, even when I’m not sure I’ve got the right end of the shtick. If I were completely sure of myself, I would not take the trouble to air my views.

  11. John: Yet such consistency is a luxury that society can no longer afford

    Amen.

  12. There are some very interesting stories in this MetaFilter thread; here’s one posted by thivaia:

    I was about twelve years old when I first made it a point to not sound southern. I dropped the “y’all” and watched my consonants. I overcorrected on the long “I”-sound so it wouldn’t come out like “ah.” I was very careful to pronounce the “ing.” By the time I was in high school, I’d landed on something slightly Mid-Atlantic, quite definitively north of the Mason-Dixon line and veering slightly westward into newscaster territory. And I remember being a little flattered whenever someone assumed I was from Somewhere Else Other Than North Carolina. “I would have never known you were from the South. You don’t have much of an accent at all.”

    Of course, I did have an accent. I had the fake one I gave myself. Also, I was pretty great at subtly mimicking other people’s accents. Nothing all that noticeable. Just slight inflections, etc. I hardly even realized I was doing it until I started hosting a lot of parties and realized I was saying the same words in several different ways depending on who I was talking to.

    Long story, short version: I don’t have the accent I had as a kid. I can fake my way through a bunch of different dialects (with variable success), but I can’t summon a credible version of the one I would have had (had I not been so ashamed of maybe sounding like a yokel or a redneck). Recently, I watched a videotape of myself at ten and was shocked that I sounded like a totally different person (and not just because of age). And my accent was kind of interesting, maybe even charming. Sometimes I’m a little bummed that I lost it.

    I also recommend a considerably longer one by barchan later in the thread.

  13. John: Naturally he gets it wrong quite often, and is criticized, ostracized, or otherwise punished for it. I have every sympathy for him: surely it would be easier on him if the matter were more like knowing his letters, which everyone around agrees is a Good Thing.

    Kids usually manage, one way or another, don’t you think ? I grew up confronted with a larger proportion of cut-and-dried demands placed on me, as you probably did too. Maybe the problem is that you and I, as basic cut-and-dried folks with a later admixture of Advanced Thinking, imagine that we would suffer disproportionately in his position. But your grandson is off to a completely different start.

  14. “Perhaps parents, educators, pundits etc. should learn to tone down their one-size-fits-all notions of right and wrong, and instead enable their kids to learn different techniques to deal with the different situations that will inexorably confront them.”

    This is nothing but feel-good relativism run amok. You propose that a Kansas farm family teach their kids how to speak “New York street” in preparation for their once in a lifetime visit to the Big Apple? On the oft chance that the boys will end up at an inner city playground looking for a pickup ball game? Kumbaya, why can’t we all just get along and speak the same language! Sorry to deflate your social organizing dreams BUT some say “would you please” while someone else is equally free to say “wudya” and no please at all. My kids know which “notion” has left them best “fitting in”.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Hozho: You propose that a Kansas farm family teach their kids how to speak “New York street” in preparation for their once in a lifetime visit to the Big Apple?

    I don’t see any proposal of the kind in LHat’s comment, or other “social organizing dreams”. Whatever you are doing with your kids i(since it seems to be working) s probably closer to what LHat had in mind.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    ““You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.”

    I went to school with a white Jamaican, who sounded like any other Jamaican. It occasionally caused him trouble with black people in the UK until they realised that this was actually his normal dialect.

  17. Stu: No, as it happens I too grew up polycontextual, with home and school singing very different tunes. (My parents were very big, for example, on the importance of always putting clothes on when I went outside or there were visitors; for practical reasons, my clothes were kept in the basement.) And in any case, school and street have had different points of view on kids’ behavior for as long as those institutions have been around, and few of us have been able to be either Huck Finns or Sid Sawyers.

    Hat: My wife came from North Carolina to New York by way of Southern Florida (where she met a lot of snowbirds and followed them home, you might say). She’s deeply ashamed of her Southern pronunciations, a shame somewhat abraded by thirty years’ exposure to my aggressive tolerance for speech variations, to be sure. But when it comes to “yall”, she has always felt sorry for impoverished anglophones who lack such a useful pronoun.

  18. John Emerson says:

    When I went to college I spoke with the accent heard in the movie “Fargo”. I didn’t know i had an accent and I couldn’t hear the difference when others were speaking. This is not a traditionally stigmatized accent like black, Mexican, or Southron, but I don’t think it did me any good at all. I became a sort of token bumpkin for my NYC friends, and an “eloquent peasant” to my college teachers. College teachers tend to be Anglophiles with elite aspirations, and not admiring of the eloquent peasant.

    Bob Dylan quotes a NYC booker: “You sound like a hillbilly; We want folk singers here.” Dylan started out with my accent, bu overlaid Woody Guthrie’s. A friend says that he actually modeled his voice on an atypical Guthrie recording made when Guthrie was sick and his vocie was rough.

    Hozho is excessively touchy by far.

  19. I wouldn’t say Hozho is touchy; I think he just enjoys being the Big Bad Contrarian.

  20. After my than 50 years in Europe, much of it in the UK, strangers can still pick up enough traces of my accent to place me quickly as from OZ or New Zealand – very few know the sux for six idiosyncrasy of Kiwis – and it is stronger in my French. I can code switch to RP, high-flautin’ or estuary/south London/cockney, and I find I sometimes make the switch automatically after some minutes with someone with one of those accents. Change vocabulary to a degree, too.

  21. “Australia sucks, New Zealand nil”. This should probably be the Official Joke of New Zealand, like the Official Joke of Boston.

  22. I have the feeling I’ve already said this on one of these blogs, but my biggest problem in grad school as an Appalachian in the Midwest was that when I was trying to be friendly I’d automatically drop my register a notch, and many of my peers (especially if they were from a big Midwestern city) would find this off-putting or even threatening (even when intelligible, which wasn’t always). They’d always try to get me to talk Midwestern, which I sociolinguistically interpreted as holding me at arm’s length. A classic +/- cross that took me the devil’s amount of time to figure out.

  23. Belfast people always have sex after tea…

    …tea three fur five sex.

  24. Speaking of encountering new accents and trying to fit in:

    When we moved from near Rochester, NY, to NJ near NYC when I was 7, our new next-door neighbors had a girl named Carol and it took some time for her and my little sister Carol to figure out that the they had the same name in spite of the vowel.

  25. Hozho, I am horrified! You are failing your children if you are not preparing them to fit into every conceivable social situation!

  26. Hozho: This is nothing but feel-good relativism run amok. You propose that a Kansas farm family teach their kids how to speak “New York street” in preparation for their once in a lifetime visit to the Big Apple?
    empty: Hozho, I am horrified! You are failing your children if you are not preparing them to fit into every conceivable social situation!

    My comment was not about “values”, so I don’t see the relevance of a charge of “relativism” (the matching notion being, what – “absolutism” ?). My comment was not about feeling good, and not about preparing for all conceivable situations.

    What I wrote was:

    Perhaps parents, educators, pundits etc. should learn to tone down their one-size-fits-all notions of right and wrong, and instead enable their kids to learn different techniques to deal with the different situations that will inexorably confront them.

    It so happens that what I wrote is what I meant. I suggested that parents should help their children to be linguistically prepared (have acquired skills in two ways of speaking: hometown and cross-country) to deal with situations that they will inexorably confront later. Those are situations as job training, or applying for a job.

    This is what most parents already do, I daresay. The only new point I was making is that it might help to leave right and wrong out of the picture, and just concentrate on what’s ahead down the road.

    Perhaps a comparison with toilet training is appropriate. There too, children learn to deal with situations that will inexorably confront them. They learn that in some places it is OK to shit, in others not. This requires learning to hold it in until expectations on all sides can be met. Similarly, one can learn to suppress dialect in the workplace, to wait until one gets homes. Or to restrain impluses to talk about Luhmann at home, and instread wait until one can make blog comments.

  27. “… and instead wait until one is at the blogplace.”

  28. marie-lucie says:

    The comparison has often been made between using different styles/registers of language and similar variations in clothing, depending on circumstances. Preschool children may not yet be able to modulate their speech style, but they can appreciate differences in clothing: even the most lenient parents will insist on socially appropriate clothing in some cases, such as if the child is to be included in a traditional wedding ceremony. There are more or less subtle regional variations in speech and clothing as well: in some parts of North America you see a cowboy hat on almost every male head, but wearing such a hat in the streets in other regions would immediately brand a man as coming from a certain place before he opened his mouth and his accent confirmed the diagnostic. Parents may not specifically “train” their children to speak one way or another, but eventually children pick up that with some people or under specific circumstances they had better use or not use certain words, turns of phrases, and other features of speech.

  29. Good examples, marie-lucie. I too was thinking of dress codes – something that teenagers are already focussed on. The principle is the same, and is easy to transfer to language codes. To insist that teenagers “speak the right way”, as if there were only one, is just asking for trouble and resentment. Let them figure out for themselves what the advantages might be of having a few fancy duds in the closet, not just bling jeans.

    The right/wrong distinction is a moralizing one, since it assigns praise or blame. The hometome/cross-country distinction is about different praises in different places.

  30. “Hometown/cross-country”.

    Let me put it another way: a moral charge by its nature is a judgement against the entire person. You do bad things, you’re a bad person, and are ostracized. That’s why moralizing – applying the right/wrong distinction to everything in sight – so easily turns into conflict.

    Failure to conform to a dress code in a given situation does not by its nature entail a judgement of the entire person. Such judgements can be issued, of course, say by hysterical hostesses and their homoerotic hairdressers. But even these people are not themselves bad, they merely set a bad example.

    Particular dress codes hold in particular situations. Morality is supposed to hold in all situations. It always distinguishes in terms of right and wrong, while avoiding the question of whether it is right always to do so. How sneaky is that ?

  31. “The only new point I was making is that it might help to leave right and wrong out of the picture, and just concentrate on what’s ahead down the road.”

    And the only question I would ask is, which expression “would you please” or “wudya” is to be better linguistically prepared for a job training or applying for a job? To believe that both are relatively right depending on the context et all is to have gone wobbly in the noodle, I daresay.

  32. To believe that both are relatively right depending on the context

    To repeat, Hozho: what I said has nothing at all to do with “right”, and a fortiori nothing at all to do with “relatively right”. It has everything to do with being smart, having options based on acquired skills, and not shitting on the floor when it’s not in a toilet.

    which expression “would you please” or “wudya” is to be better linguistically prepared for a job training or applying for a job?

    You’ve missed my point entirely. One should be able to do both with ease. One should be able to chose and switch at short notice. Whichever you actually use depends on how you judge the given situation.

    Maybe you misjudge the given situation – so what ? This is NOT about some particular choice, but about being better prepared in general.

  33. In some contexts “Would you please?” would be taken, perhaps rightly, for elaborate sarcasm.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    If you are the applicant, neither of these is likely to be helpful. They are things that a boss would say to an underling, not the opposite.

  35. I’m coming to this thread late, and am surprised at so little comment on what is for me the most interesting point of the original post, that “most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several.” Basically, if you grow up in any big city that has been subject to multicultural immigration, (and you don’t live in a lily-white neighbourhood) you will be exposed as a child to multiple accents and dialects. And any big city will have multiple internal dialects, and since parents move from one part of a city to another, you’ll be exposed to them, too.

    For instance, growing up in suburban Toronto, the elder daughter of the neighbour to one side of our house said “youse,” but the younger daughter didn’t. On the other side, we had a Jamaican woman. My parents were immigrants from Ireland. The first person I heard use “fuckin” as an adjective in primary school was a Scottish immigrant from Glasgow with a very Polish surname. And so on.

    A couple of days ago, my brain beclouded from hours of breathing in paint fumes, my friend who was helping me paint pointed out that I had said “boughten.” Where in the ancient stores in my brain this had been dredged up from, I don’t know. At a guess, from my Irish parents.

    And if you live in a big city and don’t have the kind of job where you can be penalized for not speaking right, you can enjoy this profusion of accents and dialects for what it is, the richness of humanity.

Speak Your Mind

*