“What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Communicate”
Accents and dialects are tricky things … not just for African Americans but for anyone who speaks with something other than the standard sociolinguistic accent found in a given neck of the woods. The mere cadence of our voice speaks volumes about each and every one of us. As soon as we utter a sound, the listener draws inferences about our place of origin, socio-economic status, education level, occupation and life experience. Based on this first impression – rightly or wrongly – we are deemed a trustworthy partner or con artist to avoid, a raving intellectual or backwoods know-nothing, a compassionate soul or player along for the ride, a driven urban professional or laid-back surfer dude.
In her book, The Skin That We Speak, Lisa Delpit and contributors expand on this notion and its consequences in human interactions. In the introduction, Delpit eloquently describes how:
Our language embraces us long before we are defined by any other medium of identity. In our mother’s womb we hear and feel the sounds, the rhythms, the cadences of our “mother tongue.” We learn to associate contentment with certain qualities of voice and physical disequilibrium with others. Our home language is viscerally tied to our beings as existence itself … as the sweet sounds of love accompany our first milk, as our father’s pride permeates our bones and flesh … It is no wonder that our first language becomes intimately connected to our identity.
In his chapter, “Ebonics: A Case History,” Ernie Smith traces his educational history through the lens of the establishment’s perceived deficiency of his own “mother tongue.” Throughout his schooling in a predominantly Black, urban school district, teachers and administrators dubbed the speech of African Americans who spoke like him as “talking flat,” speaking “Broken English” and “verbally destitute.” Smith and his friends were often placed in remedial courses, considered...