Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Cultural Value of Markedness

By. Kathryn Villaverde

 Acknowledging and confronting the difference between standard English (SE)/ “white talk” and AAVE/BEV/”black talk” is not just the job of linguistics scholars these days, it is everyone’s job.  From popular psedo-news comedy program “The Daily Show” (Daily Show - Blanguage) to classic stand up comedy jokes (Lamar De Sol) to a whole collection of online videos of young men and women pointing out how the distinction between “black talk” and “white talk” has become a problem of culture and identify in their lives (there are links to these later in the post).  These can be seen as cultural responses to the interaction of two linguistic ideologies about race and markedness, one pointed out by Labov and one pointed out by Bucholtz. 
In the Labov article Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence there is a clear and unfortunate delineation between BEV and standard/white English. He bases his whole ideology on the difference and his observation that each has it’s own rules and distinct practice, history, set of meanings, etc. In contrast, most likely due to the large difference in time between the two articles and the cultural blending that has come with that time, Bucholtz writes that, today, “whiteness is separated from blackness in ideology but inextricable from it in practice” hinting at the “cool” standard she noticed at Bay City High School which incorporated many forms of spoken language previously associated only with AAVE but was spoken as a standard by the high schoolers despite race (95).  She points out how the standard form of English spoken by most students actually incorporates “deracialzed” words and phrases from AAVE.  For me this rings true in most of my experiences as a youth in urban America (outside of NYU because here I’ve barely met anyone who speaks anything less than “perfect English”).  The relationship between these two perspectives of white and black language, one of separation and distinction and one of the slow process of blending/blurring, plays interestingly into culture and how the everyday person perceives these processes and comes to mark language. 

From one perspective it’s refreshing to know that the racial borders between AAVE and SE are breaking down and what was once considered deficient and nonsensical dialect of English is now part of the youth standard and must be accepted in schools, at least at the spoken level. But where does this place “marked” and “unmarked” language if they show signs of blending?  How does this affect the racial identities of youth using these deracialized language practices?
It seems that now, instead of Labov’s classic racial binaries of language, there is more of a sliding scale so markedness only encompasses the extremes like the “hyperstandard” of the nerds or “advanced ebonix simplex two” identified in this ("Advance Ebonics") interesting and hilarious (not sure if it’s supposed to be funny) video about the distinction between the AAVE of the deep south versus more urban and diverse areas. Awareness of language difference and the weight it caries has moved most usage of AAVE or hyperstandard “from practice to performance” (Bucholtz, 94) such that deviation from the standard is something that is used and manipulated and markedness is the goal instead of unintentionally speaking outside of the standard and having the mark of that language practice be a bad thing.

 When considering the price of deracialized language or blurring racial boundaries between two forms of language that were once completely bipolar and the risks those processes may carry I realized that part of the value of AAVE/ebonics is, and may always have been, the separation it creates.  There seems to be a fear that losing racial iconization of language and henceforth ignoring the history and culture that comes with that iconization also dilutes the culture itself and takes something essential away from the identity of the speaker.  To me, this explained the need of the white nerds to assert their whiteness by using a “hyperstandard” and the need of the black basketball players in North Carolina to assert their blackness by using a form of AAVE even more divergent from SE than typically understood.  The blending of SE or "white talk" and AAVE or "black talk" comes as a threat to some who actually rely on the markedness of a certain way of speaking to form their identity. 
Jim Huber points out in a short article titled “An Ebonics Class – Why?” the sickness he felt when he heard about a class at a Louissiana University teaching Ebonics and how most of the students were white or Asian males.  He asks “can you really learn how to communicate with Black people from a class?” under the assumption that the reason the people in the class are not black is because they are people who want to "learn to communicate with and understand black people" (Jim Huber). When his informant tells Huber that she got a B in the class he comments “I guess it isn’t easy being Black or learning how to speak Black, either” in a way that suggests the intangible links between Black history and Black language which cannot necessarily be taught.  There’s not just a race that goes with AAVE but a history.  I thought of the word “nigga” (or other less acceptable variations) which can so easily be thrown into conversations between black AAVE speakers but GOD FORBID a white person uses it (Chris Rock - Can White people say nigger?), no matter what their typical language practices.  The same way we talked about One language – One nation – One people we could say One language – One culture – One people that is threatened by blurring boundaries and borders.

The prevalence of this concern can be seen in the various videos online concerned about the distinction between “black talk” and “white talk”.  For the most part it is young, black, females who point out that their peers hassle them often about “talking white” and, essentially, not staying true to their racial history which is largely defined through language.  Here are a few examples of this concern:
                  - Cut to about 1:30 - video #1
                  -  video #2
                  -   video #3
   -  video #4
  -  video #5

Consistent themes throughout the videos are anxiety about being called "white" because of the way they talk and the extreme importance of staying linguistically true to one's race in the black community.  It is interesting to notice that in all the videos, despite the fact that all of the speakers are black (there are no videos on youtube of any white people being called out for "talking black" and feeling the need to talk about it which is interesting in itself), "black talk" is still defined as something signifying "ignorance", "laziness" and being "uneducated" or not reading books while "white talk" is considered "proper", "clear" and "educated".  The video creators usually made it a point to say that they do not associate the way they or anyone else talks with their race but they do associate a certain way of talking with being more correct or educated but it is their peers who feel threatened by their "white talk".  All-in-all, the whole dynamic these videos present about the conflict of many black youth to speak properly or "correct" yet not be called out by their friends for sounding too white and therefore somehow ignoring or insulting their racial identity says a lot about the progression of markedness. In one situation, Bay City High School, the standard seemed to be a mix of AAVE and SE while the nerds who wanted to embrace their whiteness had to use a "hyperstandard" for of SE to stand-out and create an identity for themselves. In another situation, the clear distinction between AAVE as black and SE as white that Labov pointed out so long ago is still something that is being played with and stands in the back of everyone's mind.  However, this time, the culture and history that comes with AAVE is trying to stay pure and true to itself by sustaining it's markedness.  We can see this playing out in the need for youth to call out their peers when they aren't staying true to their racial language category. 

So, although “talking black” is associated ideologically and culturally with being “uneducated”, “ignorant” and “lazy” it still has value as a representation of a history, a culture and a way of life and if it were to just fade into the “standard” a lot could be lost in terms of identity. People still crave a "people" to identify with in terms of lanugage that does not just have to do with national borders.  However, maintaining the markedness of “black talk” or AAVE as something less-than SE also leads in a negative direction as Labov pointed out some 35 years ago. 

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