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Language IS Culture

April 11, 2010

Movie poster for 'The Class'.

Why is African American English (AAE) important to African Americans and others who speak it? How does language impact a peoples’ community?

Those in power often impose their beliefs about what correct language is on others. This imposition manifests itself in those who are powerless. They internalize these beliefs. This is critical because language represents a peoples’ theory of reality. It is popularly believed that reality shapes our thoughts which in turn shapes our language. However, the truth is that language shapes our thoughts which in turn shapes reality. As Frantz Fanon argued in his “The Negro and Language” (1967), “every dialect, every language, is a way of thinking. To speak means to assume a culture.”

Here are some examples of this imposition in the United States:

“Better Speech Week” was a movement that the National Council of Teachers of English began in 1917 to promote “proper” speech. Part of the national movement included a pledge for students to recite regularly:
I love the United States of America. I love my country’s flag. I love my country’s language. I promise:
1    That I will not dishonor my country’s speech by leaving off the last syllable of words.
2    That I will say a good American “yes” and “no” in place of an Indian grunt “um-hum” and “nup-um” or a foreign “ya” or “yeh” and “nope.”
3    That I will do my best to improve American speech by avoiding loud rough tones, by enunciating distinctly, and by speaking pleasantly, clearly, and sincerely.
4    That I will learn to articulate correctly as many words as possible during the year.

“Better Speech Week” endeavored to standardize American English speech especially among students. Though the pledge was not specifically directed at AAE or African Americans, one can be certain that it was one of the movement’s target demographics.

In 1989 New York Public Schools Chancellor, Dr. Richard Green, together with then-Mayor Edward Koch attacked twenty “speech demons” that they thought were holding back New York’s youth. Here is their full list of “demons possessing student tongues”:
*May I axe a question?
*Hang the pitcher on the wall.
*He’s goin home.
*He be sick.
*I ain’t got none.
Can I leave the room?
I was like tired, you know?
Where is the ball at?
What-cha doin’?
I’ll meetcha at the cau-nuh.
What do youse want?
*Let’s go to da center?
*I brang my date along.
The books is in the liberry.
Yup, you betcha!
Pacifically . . .
*I don’t know nuttin about it.
*I’m no the on’y one.
*We was only foolin ‘round.
So I says to him.

About half of these “demons” are found in African American English (as marked with an *). Attacking AAE, Green and Koch reenforce racial hierarchy and demean (by not even recognizing) the cultural importance of AAE.

For an example of the importance of language in a community, check out Laurent Cantet’s 2008 French film Entre Les Murs (The Class).

The Class is based on a best-selling novel by François Marin about one especially trying year teaching a group of ethnically and racially diverse students at an inner city high school in Paris. While the students do not speak AAE, their language differs from Standard French in a similar way that AAE differs from Standard English.

Marin struggles to reach the students across age, social, and language barriers. The students struggle with Standard French and use slang to communicate with each other while Marin uses relatively elevated language in the classroom. Marin tries to correct their speech but cannot do so properly since he does not understand it. The communication barrier makes it difficult for him to communicate his academic lessons to them and to discipline them. His negative attitude toward the students’ language makes him doubt their learning potential. The students internalize Marin’s dismissive attitude about their speech which manifests itself in the students’ work. Because language is a representation of one’s culture or community, Marin’s attitude toward their language can also be seen as a critique on their community causing the students to lose all respect for their teacher and vice versa. This all serves to alienate him from the students and to alienate them from the academic community.

Check out The Class streaming on Netflix.com!

For another example of the power of language, check out Nancy Ries’ Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika. Russian Talk examines the conversation and forms of speech in 1990s Russia and how they constructed personal and national identity.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Brittney permalink
    April 13, 2010 12:08 am

    I think the pledge for “Better Speech Week” is ridiculous, and so blatantly problematic and offensive. I agree that people internalize beliefs imposed on them, like that their language is inferior. It’s really sad, because, like you said, language is deeply embedded in culture and, therefore, identity. It’s sad to think that young children are being indirectly taught that their language, culture, and identity are “inferior” and even “wrong”.

  2. bla permalink
    November 2, 2013 11:30 pm

    yet it is important to have standards!

  3. Anastasia permalink
    December 4, 2013 1:07 pm

    because of language contact phenomenon which is on the increase, i think it would be inappropriate for people to be told how to speak but instead a study should be carried out to investigate what influences the way people speak.

  4. Anastasia Nuworsu permalink
    December 13, 2013 2:54 pm

    language is indeed culture, it gives a person an identity, it tells the history and belief system of a people, I don’t think it is a nice idea to tell people to drop their culture and identity for another. I believe the pledge for “Better Speech Week” is not the best resolution of maintaining the ‘purity’ of the Standard American English.

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