Monday, February 21, 2011

Marked Language: The Binary of Non-Standard English

by Maria Melendez    
            Language use is a way of marking a person’s status in both social settings and academic settings.  It can be used as a sign of racial markedness, a judge of intelligence, or even as a way to distinguish oneself from popular social norms.  This kind of association is apparent in the markedness present in the opposing linguistic forms of racialized speech and hypercorrect or nerd speech.  Both are marked for being nonstandard in their communication and both emphasize the distinction of normalized English.  However, there are differences in the social privileges associated with both of these nonstandard forms which hinder certain people from participating fully in these linguistic communities.  The very presence of distinct linguistic communities provides an affirmation of hierarchies that form the basis of assumptions of a person’s intellectual capability based on their speech. 

            African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is one form of racialized English that is discussed in William Labov’s article “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence.”  Along with its racialization, there is also a judgment made on the communities and a supposed innate lack of English capabilities that are present in these contexts.  As Labov mentions, these ideas of contextual inferiority are supported by school psychologists who see these children as lacking enough verbal stimulation at home.  Despite the lack of an explicit declaration of innate inferiority from these psychologists, genetics are nevertheless assumed to be the source of problems by their sponsors (64-65).  In addition this idea of inevitability hurts the teacher-student relationship because the belief may show in the interaction of the teacher with the students who they believe are not capable of achieving in school.  This of course is a problem for children whose self-esteem may suffer because their language use is constantly being marked as incorrect. 
            The idea that the students’ language is incorrect and flawed has been supported by flawed studies of language, such as that of Carl Bereiter, which are based off conceptions of standard English which suggest that children who speak AAVE do not follow the rules of grammar and come to school without knowing a communicative language.  However, they do follow them just in ways that speakers of standard English may not understand because the rules that are associated with them are not consciously practiced within this English.  For example, the use of “They mine” as opposed to “They’re mine” is referred to as incorrect, however, it is grammatically correct because it utilizes the “deletion rule” which relies on a “deep and intimate knowledge of English grammar and phonology” in order to use it correctly (76).  This suggests that AAVE may be considered not only grammatically incorrect but also more concise in its use of deletion and succinctness in meaning. 
            The succinctness of AAVE may be seen as against the standard use of English, but hypercorrect forms of English are on the other side of the spectrum in their complexities and strict adherence to English norms without acknowledging the uses of nonstandard English.  Mary Bucholtz discusses the phenomenon of nerd English in her article “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness.”  This article introduces the concept of the nerd as being “racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines and instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language” (85).  The association of nerdiness with such specific qualities is a bit difficult to understand because why should nerdiness considered only in relation to whiteness? 
            This issue is addressed in such cultural associations as Asian Americans as the “model minority” which allows them to claim positions of “honorary whiteness” in American society and subsequently be assigned a stereotypical position of nerdiness (87).  Similarly, the presence of nerdiness within racially marked categories such as African Americans are seen as an act that may result in negative consequences among peers who may see them as acting white.  This may lead to a personal downplaying of achievements in order to disassociate from whiteness.  Therefore, the idea of nerdiness being associated with whiteness is understandable because it is a privileged role in which few take part (96).  In contrast however, African American culture is associated with coolness.  In order to take part in this culture, it must first be re-racialized as an accepted form of white culture.  In addition, blackness is actively used as a contrast to whiteness.        
             Similarly, nerdy students use culture to distinguish their own identity by identifying themselves as the grammatically correct group that prides themselves in not having knowledge of the use of slang or popular culture.  This can be seen in the popular YouTube video “Yo Comments Are Wack in which two video bloggers comment on the lack of grammar they see in the negative comments people leave on their videos by giving a mini-grammar lesson via song. 

The comedic tone makes it an amusing video and the pet peeves they list for such errors as misspelling words and using the letter “z” to pluralize, is telling of the kind of hypercorrectness that is present in nerdy English.  Their position as hierarchically above those who do not use correct grammar is apparent in their introduction in which they use an overly verbose sentence, “They only spend hours derogatively responding to other people's videos because they lack the creative capacity to produce compelling and entertaining video content of their own”, in order to convey a simple insult.   Also, their parody of the "Baby Got Back" song by Sir Mix-A-Lot as well as their use mock hip hop dance moves,  and loose fitting clothing and backward caps, are instances of African American culture for their own use.  Therefore, this parody suggests that nerds can also utilize other cultures in order to elevate their position as extremely white. 
            The ideas of linguistic differences between racialized forms of English, standard English, and hypercorrect or nerd English can be seen as a means of enforcing hierarchical ideologies that encourage discrimination based on language abilities.  There is a privilege that is embedded in the standard English that is not recognized in AAVE.  Hypercorrect English is also marked for its overt complexities and strict adherence to the rules of English.  In this type of English, exclusivity is important because it distinguishes the nerds from the rest of the English speakers and is not looked down upon as a deficiency such as AAVE.  However, language should not be considered an indicator of intelligence because intelligence in the United States is very much in line with the norms of white American culture and does not acknowledge the facility of nonstandard uses of English that has its own strengths and uses.     

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