Talk This Way: unpacking the slang stigma

Tomorrow I will be beginning my “Grammar and Politics of the English Language ” class which will be:

An examination of the structures and forms which currently govern standard usage of the English language. Encompasses a broad view of grammar as a subject by a wide-ranging investigation of the history and development of the language. Examines the social and political implications of the development of English as a global language.

Surely ebonics/slang will come up in this class, so before I begin taking this course’s info and (re)forming my opinions I thought I’d make this blog post as a sort of “preflection”.

Defining Ebonics/Slang

WEB-SlangFlashcards2My understanding is: ebonics is a form of slang. Slang being “a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.” I use ebonics and slang interchangeably but people tend to say Ebonics is, more specifically, African American Vernacular. I don’t know about the history of Ebonics enough to comment and, growing up, Ebonics was very much a part of the latin community so I hesitate to say Ebonics is black slang.

One thing the general definitions of Ebonics and slang do have in common is that both are “regarded as a language in their own right, not just a dialect”. The vocabulary of Ebonics/slang is always changing for instance, some of the words used in this Big L’s “Ebonics” song (in which he defines dozens of slang terms) are out of date but others are still used.

Cringe, confusion, or camaraderie: my experiences using Ebonics

I’m a lover of language and I love using slang; it’s what I grew up with. Slang was in my neighborhood, in my grade school cafeteria, in my home, and in my headphones. It’s something I hold dear. I still use it today, in casual conversation and even during class discussion (albeit sparingly). My use of Ebonics/slang isn’t as predominant as others: I rarely speak with double negatives or any of those grammatical hallmarks of “Ebonics”. But I use a lot of “slang” terms ex. janky, can I live?, real talk, so I know its real, I feel you, hella, hater, go in, come up, werk, salty, fuckery, grind, etc.

When I’m talking to someone who also uses Ebonics I tend to use more Ebonics than usual, I feed off their linguistics. There’s a comfort in that cultural connectedness. And I’m eager to learn the slang of other people/regions, for instance one of my good friends uses: “I support” as an interchangeable phrase for “I feel you”.

But more often than not, my use of Ebonics/slang is met with cringes or confusion. I use slang and then have to translate it for my peers. I’ve talked to non-Ebonic speakers about this: when I use slang they are unfamiliar with they either use context clues to figure out what I’m saying or they just don’t understand it. Occasionally someone will ask me what I mean when I say “____” but more often than not they don’t ask at all. I only find out they’re confused when I check in: “wait, do you know what ____ means”? followed by a “no”.

I’m always trying to build my vocabulary, so when one of my peers uses a word I don’t understand (slang or not) I will ask them what it means. I feel like people aren’t as willing to ask or research an ebonics phrase or slang term because that language is not seen as valuable. It’s deemed “improper English”. And while it’s true that “standard English” is the language of power, one that’s necessary to master, it’s also true that Ebonics/slang has a lot of cultural value and is not as “other” as society portrays it.

At worst, I’ve had people deny my slang, telling me “that’s not what ___ word means” thus my slang “does not make any sense”. To everyone who has ever made these statements, or something similar, do no deny what you do not understand. Don’t belittle part of my culture just because it’s not part of the accepted mainstream.

Speech Shaming 

Slam poet George Watsky said it best: “If you suppose your speech is normal it’s cause your impediment is listening”. No one constantly uses standard English in their day to day speech, only more socially acceptable slang (ex. gonna, crash, crush, drop by, take a hike, cool it, touch base, take a raincheck, I’m down, I’m game, selfie, etc).

To quote my brother on this subject: “Ebonics is an emic term. Emic being an anthropological term used to describe knowledge you can only obtain by being in a certain place or community”. So before you *speech shame people who use ebonics, think about what you’re really shaming. Is it really a matter of “proper grammar” or are there other social constructs involved that make us–as a society–see Ebonics as the language of the uneducated. I, for one, believe it’s the latter.

(*Note: I’m not saying that slang should be accepted in academia. Just that Ebonics should not be banned or looked down on any more than words like “gonna” are. And when it comes to the classroom I believe Ebonics should be affirmed, not stigmatized, and used to help children acquire fluency in Standard English. But that is a discussion for another blog post).

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