Mitchell-Kernan – Signifying, Loud-Talking and Marking

Mitchell-Kernan, C. “Signifying, Loud-Talking and Marking (1972).” Signifyin (g), sanctifyin’, and slam dunking (1999): 309. Print.

In this text, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan highlights three features and practices of Black English and discourse: signifying, loud-talking, and marking. As a linguist and speaker of Black English, Mitchell Kernan was able to offer a more thorough and accurate account of Black English practices, and do so in a way that focused on the unique characteristics and strengths of the language. Most importantly, Mitchell-Kernan examined Black English as a language system in its own right, and not in constant comparison or in the shadow of the “standard” English.

Through analysis of her interactions with speakers of Black English, she derived her own explanations of Black language usage that were oftentimes similar to result that William Labov found in his research, but Mitchell-Kernan’s explication had a more nuanced and richer quality. This is evident in her description of the use of the word “nigger” in Black discourse based on  primary research she provided in the text:

“The use of the “nigger” in these examples is of interest. It is coupled with the use of code features which are farthest removed from standard English. That is, the code utilizes many linguistic markers that differentiate black speech from standard English or white speech. More such markers than might ordinarily appear in the language of the speaker are frequently used. Interestingly, the use of “nigger” with black English markers has the effect of “smiling when you say that.” The use of standard English with “nigger” in the words of an informant, is “the wrong tone of voice” and may be taken as abusive.” (322)

Mitchell-Kernan’s main focus seems to be giving a thorough treatment of Black English for the sake of understanding Black English, not for the purpose of using it to manipulating Black students into speaking in a socially sanctioned “standard” English like linguists, such as: Labov, Fasold, and Wolfram. This type of scholar, one with linguistic training and intimate knowledge and experience with Black English, is who Labov (1971) said was needed, but did not exist.

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