I be Code-Switching

Kamrie Anderson, Humans of DVC Editor

Yo eyebrows on fleek and yo outfit poppin.

Have you ever walked past black people having a conversation using phrases that you have probably never heard of? Were they speaking in a way that you would consider improper? This is a type of vernacular that black people speak.

Vernacular is the language of dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region. Black people have a vernacular that they often speak called African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Black English. Black English combines and adopts languages from Caribbean, Jamaican and West African cultures.

This is a language that is spoken by many black people in cities like Los Angeles and New York and known as a different dialect than what is known as “proper English.”

Ebonics, the academic term for AAVE can be found in many works of art. People who use Ebonics in their work do so to powerfully convey a message. Some of these artists include: Zora Neale Hurston, June Jordan and James Baldwin.

According to Geoffrey K. Pullum, Professor of       

General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, there is an obvious difference between being an “incorrect utterance of one language” and being a “correct utterance of another.” He uses the difference between two languages, such as English and French, to prove his point. He states that when someone says “London” in French, it is not the incorrect way to say London. Rather, it is just an alternative way to say it.

Pullum also says that the “same is true when we are talking about two very closely related languages. There is a strong temptation, especially when one of the two has higher prestige, to take one to be the correct way to speak and the other to be incorrect. But it is not necessarily true.”

In everyday conversations, black teenagers encounter the comment that they speak well for a black person. If the comment doesn’t directly state that the teenager speaks well for their race, it is also indirectly stated by saying “you speak well,” or even proper. It is also common for black teenagers to be corrected when they are speaking in casual conversations.

A black student, Jazmyn Davis, at Da Vinci Communications mentioned that while being tutored by a white man she was told that she “uses a lot of active voice” and that she sounded “unintelligent” and was too intelligent to speak the way she was speaking. His comment bothered her because she wasn’t able to engage in a casual conversation without being judged for the way she was speaking.  

When a certain way to speak is known as “proper” for a long time, it is hard to accept other ways of speaking. Many black people speak in Black English because it is what they grew up around and what they are familiar with. Black people are looked down on and called ghetto for using phrases associated with Black English, but when someone else does it they are seen as joking and applauded for knowing the “kids are saying these days.”

Black people often find themselves code switching to avoid being ridiculed at work and hanging out with a certain group of people.

Code switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or a variety of languages in a conversation. Why is it that when African Americans try and do this they are told that they are speaking like a white person?

President Obama is known for his code-switching skills when giving a presidential speech in the accepted “proper” language and also switching back to speaking in his AAVE when ordering food in a historically black neighborhood.

This is a skill that should be noticed and appreciated more. When people speak in AAVE it should be viewed differently than how it is viewed now. If a person is seen using this type of language, they shouldn’t be labeled as speaking improperly or being ignorant.

Consider the way you speak with your boss compared to the way you speak with family and friends. You’re not speaking a whole new language, it is just a different dialect. Next time you walk past African Americans speaking in AAVE, try not to be so critical.