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.

Labov – The Study of Nonstandard English

Labov, William. “The Study of Nonstandard English.” Language: Introductory Readings. Eds. Virginia

In this article, William Labov argued for the need for linguists and educators to understand non-standard English variations, particularly “Negro” dialect. Like most other scholars who advocated for bi-dialectalism, Labov explained that teaching non-standard English speakers “standard” English would help them to be more upward mobile in society. According to Labov, understanding non-standard English varieties make for more efficient teaching of “standard” English.

Labov argued against considering Negro dialect as a self-contained language system apart from “standard” English. He maintained that through a careful examination of the grammatical processes and rules of both non-standard dialect and “standard” English, one would find they were closely related. According to Labov, the different dialects showed different versions of grammatical rules. For this reason, he advocated for understanding non-standard dialects within the context of “standard” English:

Any analysis of the nonstandard dialect which pretends to ignore other dialects and the general rules of English will fail (1) because the nonstandard dialect is not an isolated system but a part of the sociolinguistic structure of English, and (2) because of the writer’s knowledge of standard English.” (446)


Labov – The Notion of ‘System’ in Creole Studies

Labov, W. “The Notion of ’system’ in Creole Studies.” Pidginization and creolization of languages (1971): 447-72. Print.

This paper by WIlliam Labov is a response to numerous papers on different aspects of pidgin and creole language studies. Here, Labov described his own process of attempting to use Creole Studies to better understand and situate “Negro” English. He described  “nonstandard Negro English” as more closely related to  “standard English” than Creoles, such as Jamaican, Haitian, or Trinidadian. However, Labov admitted that Black variations of English were still distinctly different than Southern white English variations. This, for Labov, necessitated the re-evaluation of Creole Studies in understanding American Black speech varieties as well as for further developing a fuller understanding of the linguistic notion of “system,” and how to treat system variations.

Labov noted methodological challenges of non-Creole linguists trying to attain accurate examples of Creole talk as data, such as Creole speakers matching the systems of the researcher, or Creole speakers trying to accommodate the researchers and presenting “hypercreolization” – an exaggerated/ stereotyped version of the language (450). Labov noted the benefit of having Creole speaking linguists, such as Beryl Bailey, but remarked that there were no “Negro” dialect speaking linguists in the U.S.

Labov distinguished “systems” from “structures” by stating that while structures deal with elements or categories, systems relate to the relationship between the elements and categories (451). Labov also took up Noam Chomsky’s work (cited by another scholar’s paper) and argued that his linguistic theory is incompatible with sociolinguistics because of the limitations in places on language communities and how language is acquired.

Labov concluded that the “problem” of Creole languages has historic roots, and have likely manifested gradually over long periods of times. In this respect, he compared the linguistic landscape to a geographic landscape that has morphed over time:

In a given region, there are periods when one or the other type of change prevailed, but these earlier movements are not viewed as different in kind from those taking place today. This seems to be a reasonable approach to the historical problems of Creole languages: close studies of variation and change in present day Creole communities will no doubt give us a good indication of what has happened in the past.” (470)

Sledd – Bi-Dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy

Sledd, J. “Bi-Dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy.” The English Journal 58.9 (1969): 1307-29. Print.

As evidenced by the title of his article, James Sledd does not hold any punches. Straight out the gate he defined bi-dialectalism as a method of reinforcing linguistic white supremacy. He historicized the move toward bi-dialectalism as a move of white linguists, educators, and administrators to appease and get funding from government and business entities content to maintain the status quo. He argued bi-dialectalism, teaching “standard” English in schools as a second dialect to those who are non-native speakers (read: predominantly Black and Brown children), was/ is a scheme with a faulty foundation:

“The basic assumption of bi-dialectalism is that the prejudices of mid- dle-class whites cannot be changed but must be accepted and indeed enforced on lesser breeds. Upward mobility, it is assumed, is the end of education, but white power will deny upward mobility to speakers of black English, who must therefore be made to talk white English in their contacts with the white world.” (1309)

He used the words of well known linguists and scholars to support his argument that bi-dialectalism is racist and oppressive at its core, and that even with adequate funding and teacher training it is destined to fail. Sledd included names, such as: NCTE, William Stewart, McDavid, Rogey Shuy, and William Labov, who he implied profited off of their research and push toward bi-dialectalism. According to Sledd, this “smoke screen” (1310) found favor with the government because it did not name or resist white supremacy:

“The bi-dialectalists, of course, would not be so popularwith government and the foundationsif they spoke openly of the supremacy of white prejudice; but they make it perfectly clear that what they are dealingwith deserves no better name. No dialect, they keep repeating, is better than  any other–yet poor and ignorant children must change theirs unless they want to stay poor and ignorant.”   (1310)

Sledd asserted that the level of success students subjected to compulsory bi-dialectalism would be minimally higher than if they were not. This raises questions regarding the sincerity of the efforts made toward helping “disadvantaged” students succeed. Sledd also demonstrated how these efforts were also undermined in the classroom. Despite teachers being directed to consider all dialects equal, the practice of privileging “standard” English over other variations sends a much different message. Sledd quoted the report Language Programs for the Disadvantaged (NCTE, 1965): “[Teachers] must still use all the adult authority of the school to “teach standard informal English as a second dialect” (p. 137), because the youngster who cannot speak standard informal English “will not be able to get certain kinds of jobs” (p. 228).

For Sledd, it is not the language of “minorities: that needs to be addressed, but the conditions that lead to the social and racial stratification in the first place. Social justice is the larger issue: “Nothing the schools can do about black English or white English either will do much for racial peace and social justice as long as the black and white worlds are separate and hostile.”

Placing an emphasis on the larger issue of social justice would change the focus on language education and perhaps do more good that bi-dialectalism:

“Bi-dialectalism would never have been invented if our society were not divided into the dominant white majority and the exploited minori- ties. Children should be taught that. They should be taught the relations be- tween group differences and speech dif- ferences, and the good and bad uses of speech differences by groups and by individuals. The teaching would require a more serious study of grammar, lexicography, dialectology, and linguistic history than our educational system now provides-require it at least of prospective English teachers.”

For his opponents that might claim the classroom shouldn’t be politicized, Sledd argued it already was; teaching bi-dialectalism maintains white supremacy.

Foster – “Are You With Me?”: Power and Solidarity in the Discourse of African American Women

Foster, Michéle. “”Are You with Me?”: Power and Solidarity in the Discourse of African American Women.” Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. Eds. Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz. New York: Routeledge, 1995. 329-350. Print.

In this chapter Michéle Foster attempts to expand the conversation on African American English and discourse beyond the study of Black, male discourse patterns to include those of middle-class African American women. She contests the notion that middle-class African American speech patterns align more closely with Standard English than those of working-class African Americans (Labov 1969).

Her data comes from observations of and interviews with African American female teachers. By using the framework of performance theory and discourse analysis, Foster concludes that the African American women in her study intentionally and systematically used features of African American discourse style, such as codeswitching in order to express their identity. Such expressions are also influenced by the social relationships between the participants – mainly familiarity.

… this chapter makes clear not only that African American women of the middle class and in the teaching profession retain their ability to communicate in the African American vernacular but that through their use of African American discourse they index a social identity and communicate a particular stance or point of view that cannot be expressed in Standard English. African American English enables these women to communicate cognitive, affective content not available in the standard form of the language, to create and maintain social relationships and express solidarity with listeners (347).