Rod Dreher

As you know, this is no longer a politically partisan blog, but I do want to call your attention to the black linguist John McWhorter’s defense of Harry Reid re: the senator’s controversial remarks about Obama and black English. I learned some interesting things about black English from a linguistic and sociological point of view. Wherever you stand on the Reid controversy, McWhorter’s is the kind of well-informed commentary that illuminates these kinds of issues, rather than simply adds heat to them.
His discussion of how many black English speakers can easily toggle from “black English” to standard spoken English reminds me of how easily I can do the same thing when I go back down South, without even realizing it. My wife sometimes tells me that my accent really thickens up when I’m in Louisiana, and on my recent trips back home, I caught myself using what a linguist would probably identify as something close to a dialect when engaged in daily conversation. Someone who only knows me from speaking standard English, as I do most of the time, might suspect that I was putting on a fake accent, or “slumming” in the linguistic habits of my childhood (e.g., using slighly incorrect English), but in fact this is quite unconscious, or rather, I only become conscious of it when I hear something coming out of my mouth that startles me. I have a friend from back home who’s an officer in the U.S. military, and who has served at a high level in various theaters around the world. She’s a lawyer, and is one of the most culturally sophisticated people I know. And yet, when we get together, as we did in the UK last summer, we fall into talking like back home — and it makes me really happy, because those rhythms and expressions are such a comfort to me. Here’s McWhorter:

In mentioning that Obama doesn’t speak in “dialect,” Reid acknowledged something many blacks are hot and quick to point out, that not all black people use Black English. Okay, they don’t – and Reid knows. He didn’t seem surprised that Obama can not sound black when he talks – he was just pointing out that Obama is part of the subset of blacks who can. He knows there is such a subset. Lesson learned.
Indeed Reid implied that black dialect is less prestigious than standard, such that not speaking it made Obama more likely to become President. That is, he implied what we all think too: Black English is, to the typical American ear, warm, honest — and mistaken. If that’s wrong, okay – but since when are most Americans, including black ones, at all shy about dissing Black English? And who among us — including black people — thinks someone with what I call a “black-cent” who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it’s fair or not? Reid, again, deserves no censure for what he said unless we’re ready to censure ourselves too.

That’s true. I know a number of intelligent, honorable white Southerners who don’t routinely travel outside their local area, and who therefore speak in a variation of standard English almost all the time. I can do this to, and as I said, sometimes do. But I would be very surprised, and indeed troubled, by a president who spoke this way — and frankly, I suspect most of these folks would be as well. We do see the ability to speak standard English as a cultural marker. Someone who wasn’t able to make the shift, or recognize the necessity for a shift, would be like someone who was invited to a formal occasion and showed up in jeans and a t-shirt because either they had no formal clothes, or they lacked the sense to know what to wear to such an occasion. In either case, they would show themselves unready for positions of leadership.

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