Bi-dialectal Identities of Black People

What does it really mean to be bi-dialectal and what societal weight is carried with that reality?

Although African Americans speak English, there is a different kind of dialect of English that is spoken among groups of some African Americans. It is referred to by several names: “Ebonics” short for “Ebony Phonics”, “A.A.V.E.” or “African American Vernacular” or “Black English.”

The use of these terms are all controversial because they imply that the English spoken by Black people entirely is different from the English spoken from other racial groups. There are plenty of African Americans who speak standard English that is the same as the English spoken by other groups of people. Creating a separate category in essence can become a crude generalization rather than an identification of an existing dialect.

However there does need to be a word that can identify the differences of dialect because it exists within various communities. That dialect also varies by region as well. There are “Ebonics” spoken with a DC accent, an NY accent, a Georgia accent with the vocabulary of those regions added in as well.

However I think to myself that people don’t generally say that Latinos speak “Latino English” or that Asian people speak “Asian English” even though some members of those groups have thick accents. Why is it then that African Americans would be labeled as speaking a different kind of English as a whole?

I am not offended by existing realities being identified and labeled. It is true that some African Americans speak this way. However, how many do? If I said that a majority of Black people spoke that way, would I be making a crude generalization or an accurate analysis?

What about the African Americans who are bi-dialectal? Plenty of African Americans code-switch and can speak standard English just as well as Ebonics. For some reason there is a belief that if an individual speaks Ebonics that they are incapable of speaking standard English and that is not true.

There is a lot of stigma surrounding that dialect of English. A lot of negative perceptions surround it due to historical and present realities.

One historical reality is the fact that African American slaves were not allowed to read and write. If someone is living in present day with the opportunity to be educated then shouldn’t they move away from a type of speech that their ancestors were subjected to without choice?

Economics plays a big part in the social stigma of speech. Speaking advanced and superior levels of standard English is associated with a higher education, intelligence and higher economic status, whether it be true or not. This should not be the case, but it is an existing societal perception.

On the other side of the argument, there are people who have pride in speaking a dialect that formed as an adaption to such a restrictive environment. Some individuals prefer to hold onto a language and call it their own and reject the standard English forced upon us. This dialect has it’s own flavor, it’s own unique-ness, and it belongs to a group of people, or does it?

Then the question comes into play: who is allowed to speak this dialect? Is this dialect of English only reserved for African American speakers? There are plenty of other individuals of other races and ethnicities that I have encountered who speak in this dialect.

When people grow up in certain communities and are expressing their authentic selves, they tend to speak the way people around them speak. For example, there might be a poor White girl or a Korean child or a Latin male who have grown up in an Urban Community or a “Hood” or “Ghetto.” In this area the majority of the people around them might speak this way. In that scenario they are being their authentic selves, if that is how they grew up speaking.

However what about the African American child who has grown up economically privileged in the suburbs and was taught standard English only and all of the sudden adopts that dialect to fit in with their peers? Aren’t they being inauthentic?

Aren’t the children of other races who are enchanted and embrace hip hop culture also being inauthentic when they adopt a dialect that they have never been exposed to except for the music they listen to?

Still, African American people who grow up speaking advanced and superior levels of standard English are ostracized by their Black and White peers for not being “authentically Black.”

There are generational differences between families who wholeheartedly disagree with one another. There are older African American people who feel that absolutely, standard English ought to be spoken at all times with all people wherever and whenever. Some of the older generation believes that we as a people should embrace the opportunities we have to be educated and display that with pride.

Some however become so prideful that they look down upon and isolate those brothers and sisters who speak differently. This is not the right thing to do. We ought to work together, even if our dialects are different.

But what if we don’t understand one another? I will admit that there were times that I encountered people at my HBCU whose speech I truly did not understand. If I tried to speak Ebonics I would have embarrassed myself because it sounds so unnatural out of a mouth that did not grow up speaking that way.

I use some Ebonics, some of the time, such as double negatives or dropping “-ing’s” and “er’s” at the end of words. I use this dialect at home sometimes or with certain friends but for the most part I speak standard English most of the time.

My grandfather is so strict about speaking standard English that when I address myself at the door he will correct me when I say, “It is me.” He will say, “You mean, it is I.” Now I say, “It is I” because I was sick of being corrected by the grammar police. I understand why he corrected me because grammatically it should be I, but honestly, does it really matter? Saying “me” is a grammatical mistake that most Americans make, African American or otherwise.

Apart from that, plenty of people from various races and ethnicities use daily slang and colloquialisms. Yet, if they are not African American they are not judged as harshly for using it because it is not associated with a racial stereotype of perceived inability to speak standard English correctly.

If I said that this did not matter, and that speaking a certain way did not affect hire-ability or social hierarchies, that would be an outright lie.

What I will say is that I think that both sides of the argument have good points. I understand why someone would want to show off the education they have through impeccable speech that their ancestors had no opportunity to have.

I also understand why someone would want to hold onto something different, something self created, something not fully colonized but rather molded for our own lips and understanding. I think that both parties have justified feelings.

But for some that dialect is a cruel reminder of what were barred from having, a right that is denied to so many: a proper education. Some individuals do not want to be haunted by that past and so for them the voluntary speaking of this dialect is extremely taboo.

So when it comes to the debate on which type of English ought to be spoken, I feel that for me personally, due to not wanting to miss any opportunities, that Ebonics should be spoken with friends and in casual settings, but in the office, for communication’s sake at least, standard English ought to be spoken.

I think that bosses do have their clientele to think about and if their clients and co-workers cannot understand one another, they can’t be hired and have successful communication. That reasoning is not a racist one, but a linguistic one.

The purpose of language is to communicate. I believe that being bi-dialectal is alright, while others are against it altogether. For me, I was raised against it and so, I would have to learn how to speak Ebonics fully, but honestly, I have very few friends that speak it. If feel that there would be little to no purpose in me learning that type of speech apart from being able to understand the stories of people who speak it in a tertiary sense.

However, as an educator, I will be exposed to this type of speech and so perhaps I ought to make an effort to understand it more, because if I have students who are speaking this way, and I do not understand them, how can I adequately teach them?

It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to change my speech but at the same time, even if I make an effort to understand their dialect, what is my motivation to do so when all my life I have been ostracized for speaking the way that I do? Neither party respects the either one.

There in lies the problem: the disrespect.

Can we respect one another’s dialects? Can the standard English only speakers respect the Bi-dialectals? Can they respect the Ebonics only speakers?

Can the bi-dialectals respect the Ebonics only speakers? Can they respect the standard English only speakers?

Can the Ebonics only speakers respect the standard English only speakers and bi-dialectals?

Sometimes this dialect is spoken in protest against colonization. Why speak a type of English that was forced upon our ancestors when people generally don’t listen to the voices of African Americans in the first place? My English can be impeccable and a superior level, but still fall on deaf ears because of racism, prejudice and discrimination.

It hurts so much to be terribly isolated and misunderstood by both parties. To be told how exceptionally articulate one is as if one were a dog who just stood on it’s hind legs. To be told that one is not a real Black person and one is catering to White people’s wishes and that one is a traitor who speaks the “King’s English.”

Especially in education, Ebonics, A.A.V.E., Black English, whatever you call it is looked down upon as inferior, unintelligent and low class. Yet, I have witnessed plenty of HBCU students who speak that dialect earn their Bachelors, Masters and Doctorates and still stay true to themselves.

Will their speech affect their job opportunities in a negative way? Should they stop speaking the way that they are?

Or is the sacrifice worth it?

For me, this is really not an issue simply because, I grew up my whole life speaking a certain way, so speaking standard English is being true to myself unless, my family has been convinced to not be themselves for so long that they have brainwashed me into the same thinking.

These kind of questions hurt, but they are important to ponder. Know thy self. If I start all of the sudden at age twenty-six trying to learn to speak a certain way out of the blue for arbitrary reasons because I feel culturally pressured, it’s not authentic either.

Is being authentic, even at the risk of locking oneself into a box and shutting doors of opportunity, worth it? Can that person reach more people at the end of the day? Isn’t it worth the sacrifice to mask oneself and then reveal their true selves once they have reached a higher position of power?

That’s the question of the day? What are these sacrifices worth? Sacrifices of authenticity, language, culture? In the work place, at home, among friends?

I will continue to explore these questions further as well as the points on both sides of this linguistic issue.