Maria -- a mild-mannered Latina student who sat in the front row of my class -- straightened her back and shouted at me, “What’s up, my nigga!” Then she slouched and blushed: “Sorry, Professor!”
Class discussion had turned raucous. In this session of The History of the English Language, my syllabus shifted from pre-modern Englishes (my own specialty) to the varieties of English that my students specialize in -- dialects that deviate from academic norms, both grammatically and in terms of register. As my students taught me about the versions of English that they speak, they also taught me about the need for greater linguistic diversity in the university.
“How would you classify the word that Maria used?” I asked my class.
Immanuel called out, “Slang!”
“Yes. What else?”
Katie put up a hand. “A discourse marker.”
Discourse markers are, like, totally cool. Because they tell you, like, who a speaker is and, like, where they are coming from, you know?
Maria explained, “My friends use that word casually, but we can’t say it in school.”
Or as Xuechen put it, “When my friends called me their ‘Chinese nigga,’ I felt like I had made it.”
The word marks Maria and Xuechen as members of groups that dwell outside of the white, middle-class milieu that governs academe in the United States.
Academics master discourse markers. We deliver lectures according to strict protocols, and we use jargon that signals our membership in particular schools of thought. Codes of decorum control our speech, and style guides regulate our writing. We receive advice about how certain discourse markers might “hurt” our careers.
For example, as Derek Loosvelt recently explained, overusing the word “like” can mark a speaker as “unintelligent” and “as someone who’s lacking a mastery of the English language.” Of course, the film Clueless has already given the lie to those prejudices. (The main character, Cher, is anything but unintelligent!) And linguists know that notions of “proper” speech have nothing to do with “mastery” and everything to do with how certain in-groups dictate propriety. Still, such prejudices can, in fact, destroy careers. Linguistic conventions try to shut out speakers like my students Maria and Xuechen -- like, fer sher.
I object to academe’s linguistic monoculture for aesthetic reasons. An analogy: I teach in Manhattan, and for lunch I could eat crepes, bibimbap, New York pizza, halal or sushi -- all of which are within walking distance of campus. Or I could eat every day at the college cafeteria. I’d rather add some spice.
But this argument sounds decadent. (Like a 19th-century dandy, I flippantly feast on the delicacies of empire.) So let me offer another argument: as academics, we need to vary our ways of speaking in order to avoid the precanned insights and stale platitudes that deaden thought. In privileging certain forms of speech over others, we denigrate the possibility of thinking outside our own norms.
Indeed, much queer, feminist and anti-racist scholarship has given voice to marginalized communities -- precisely because, without those voices, mainstream academia does not possess a vocabulary for understanding diverse social realities. As Allen Ginsberg once told William F. Buckley, white audiences cannot comprehend phenomena like police brutality unless the media grants access to what Ginsberg called “the linguistic data” -- the actual words spoken in the streets. Ghettoized linguistically, elite academics may even fail to appreciate why some voters might prefer a president with a foul mouth.
Outside of teaching, my research also focuses on dialects of American English. This work began earnestly last year when my husband, Evan -- in one of our dinner-table lovers’ squabbles -- complained to me, saying, “Allen, you talk too slowly, and you never interrupt -- it’s annoying!” Initially, Evan’s request struck me as absurd. I soon realized that some African-American families (like Evan’s) tend to talk over each other quite boisterously, while uptight Anglo-Saxon families (like mine) tend to wait our turn to speak (or, often, remain silent).
Fans of Annie Hall might recall a similar juxtaposition between the Singers and the Halls. More scholarly, though, is an essay by Arthur Spears. In his chapter in Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African-American English, “Directness in the Use of African-American English,” Spears admits that his work may appear to air “dirty laundry.” Spears investigates speech events such as “cussin’ out” and “reading people,” as well as “getting real” and “trash talk.” As Spears shows, such forms of speech typify the “directness” of the African-American vernacular. Furthermore, Spears argues that African-American educators teach African-American students more effectively when they use a direct style. And, inversely, Spears finds that white educators often fail to appreciate the direct style of their African-American students. Spears suggests that, in order to improve educational opportunities, scholars need to speak more directly about linguistic differences.
In other words, we need to think critically about the conventions that govern academic speech. (As I just drafted my summary of Spears’s work, I obeyed my university’s dictum that I must avoid using gendered pronouns.) Such policies rarely arrive through official memos. Instead, we internalize linguistic norms unthinkingly and judge people’s intelligence based on dubious standards.
As a scholar of English, part of my job is to help my students work within those standards. But my job is also -- in part -- to question those standards. And questioning them is risky. For a white teacher like me, Spears offers a dangerous proposition. After all, I have no cover for airing other people’s dirty laundry, and admiring nonstandard dialects leaves me open to accusations of exoticizing or stereotyping. Nevertheless, education is a risky business. And, as my student Maria’s case shows -- and as Annie Hall shows -- this is not a black-and-white issue, but one that bears upon all members of the university. Nobody speaks academic English as a mother tongue.
Already, scholars of rhetoric believe, as the consensus view, that instructors should not try to change their students’ speech patterns. In the classroom, students shut down in the face of pedantry because they hate when bossy teachers tell them how to talk, especially in cases in which bourgeois white teachers dictate ex cathedra about what speech is “correct.” As Vicki Spandel and Richard J. Stiggins write, “Negative comments … tend to make students feel bewildered, hurt or angry,” but “positive comments build confidence and make the writer want to try again.” Experts recommend an approach in which professors use positive reinforcement rather than direct criticism.
But I would take that position one step farther. Rather than simply ignoring “nonstandard” English, I try to facilitate its open, friendly analysis. For example, when my student Xuechen referred to a medieval poem as a “bromance,” I asked my class to use this word in their essays about the poem. Such assignments do not simply tolerate linguistic diversity -- they actually affirm and embrace different forms of speech. As Spears has suggested, we must think directly about linguistic conventions in order to better appreciate the identities that we create through language. Rather than simply ignoring “improper” or nonstandard speech, we might relish linguistic diversity.
In an upcoming essay, I will suggest specific methods for encouraging students and faculty members to critically and creatively employ diverse dialects. For now, may I recommend that we start by sitting down at the supper table with people who speak differently, like me and Evan -- our two Englishes, direct and academic, overlapping and interweaving.