Slang: My Social Dialect

Slang: My Social Dialect
by Kimberlea Rodney

From the student: In Writing Studio 205, we focused on the rhetoric of discourse communities. For this particular assignment, we were asked to discuss a discourse community that we are a part of, and its effect on people outside of that community. I decided to use my experiences growing up in New York City as my focal point. In all my writings, I tend to reflect on my experiences to enrich and personalize texts.

From the teacher: In her essay, Kimberlea begins by analyzing her social dialect but broadens her essay to address the larger implications of Black English in American culture. Her essay weaves narrative, analytical and argumentative elements; her conclusion ends with a flourish of manifesto. Overall, this essay is an exploration of the social context of language use, with close attention to the ways in which language use conveys messages about class, status, race and power.

As a black woman, I must speak differently. I must be able to communicate with my peers and with those who I interact with on a regular basis. I must also be able to speak in the business world. I must know the right time to voice my opinion and the most effective way to do it. I must be powerful and dynamic in my speech and presence. Does that make me any less of a person? Does that mean that I am allowing myself to be homogenized by White America? Does that make me a sell-out? To some people that would make me a sell-out. They would say that I am leaving behind my language for something else. For something that is not mine. I think not. It makes me an intelligent woman who will not let the constraints of language hold me back. Yeah, that's right, I have a dialect. I have a social dialect that if used in the wrong place at the wrong time will immediately classify me as being an uneducated, black, "hip-hop talking bad girl." But there is more to me than that. I speak to reveal the ideas and notions in my head. I speak to you so that you can understand me, so that the conversation flows. I speak to my peers differently, so that they can understand me and feel comfortable around me.

My social dialect is that of a young black woman. Not someone from the deep South or someone from Oakland, just someone from Brooklyn. I do not have a heavy accent neither do I have a country accent. I have a New York City accent which enables me to pronounce words and letters differently than people from other cities. I really cannot specify the difference in my accent, but anyone not from the city can tell it. It is a unique accent and dialect filled with colorful phrases and expressions. I use what some would call slang which should not be confused with ebonics. Ebonics or "Black English"is significantly different from slang. Seymour presents Black English as the inability of those descending from Western Africa to conjugate the verb "to be"and to pronounce certain sounds. Seymour also points out that this is a language in itself and should not be confused with lazy speech. Black language should be understood and nurtured before the speaker is taught to speak Standard English (Seymour 152). Slang, on the other hand, is lazy speech. It is the picking up of interesting phrases and adapting them to your own use. The word "tight"has been kidnapped by those who speak slang. Previously, it meant close fitting, but for this Brooklyn girl it means nice. Another example would be the word "butter." People who speak slang have given it a new meaning as well as changed the sound of the word. When I say something is "butta,"I mean that something is nice, fly, da'bomb. Slang also tries to make words sound rhythmic, which cuts off sounds by adding new sounds. The term "wassup"illustrates this; it combines the words "what is up"into one quick sounding word. When "wassup"is lazily said it sounds like "'sup."

Black English is a way of life. Those that speak it, speak this way all of the time. They do not realize that it is improper English. Neither can they correct themselves. When I speak in slang, I know that I am doing it. I know that slang is a way of speaking to a specific group. I know that I can correct myself and that I can speak properly. This is a major misconception about the two. The first is a dialect that the speaker cannot control. The latter is an attitude. It is a way of approaching life and situations at home differently from situations at work or elsewhere.

For my social group, slang was originated by Black Americans and Southerners and poorly educated persons. These people had a way of speaking that sounded like a code to foreigners. They could speak to each other in English but others could not understand them. They would also steal words from other social groups such as the upper-class and the working-class, give them new meanings and use them. This was fascinating to my peers and myself. Slowly, we picked up these words and phrases. First using them to imitate and to make fun of those people, later adapting them as our own code of membership. A few years ago, my friends and I were exposed to some kids that lived in the projects. They would say things like "my baby's favva"and "I be chillin'!" At first we just picked up these terms. But now when my girlfriends and I are talking about a cute guy, we refer to him as "my next baby favva"or we would say "she be buggin'."These are just little phrases that we have incorporated into our speech to make it more interesting and to make it flow better. As we matured, our slang matured, and the group which used slang increased; now I hear my little sister who is eight speaking slang to her friends. It became a way of communicating so that our parents or even nosy people cannot understand. It was also useful for speaking quickly. We could tell a whole story with just a few words. It is really interesting how I can sometimes tell a whole story using slang and different sounds. I can say to any of my friends that I saw this guy and he was oooh, and they know exactly what I am talking about. At other times, I can say "know what I am sayin',"and my friends know exactly what I am talking about. These words call for changes in facial expressions, moods and attitudes. Certain words in slang have negative connotations while others have positive effects. They bring immediate laughter or sadness when heard. If I say to my close friend that someone was "the worse"she would immediately screw up her face (frown). Similarly, if I say that someone was "da'bomb,"she'd smile. If I call someone a "chicken,"immediately we both bust out in laughter, because being called a chicken is the worse kind of disrespect. Being called a chicken means that you have no sense, you act childish, and that you are unworthy to be around humans. By using these terms, I have said a whole lot without saying much at all.

Slang becomes a haven. It becomes a symbol of home and simple life. Slang tends to set you apart from society. When many blacks enter the business world, they are forced to speak Standard English. They are forced to conform to society. So instead of allowing ourselves to be homogenized, we find a tool that separates us. Blacks use their language as a way of being different and not conforming to society. This is our freedom. But slowly, this freedom is being invaded. The territory is being taken over by the enemy-white America and the media: "Blacks have no culture because most of it is out on loan to white people. With no interest"(Smitherman 164). Now everyone speaks slang, not just those who have acquired it as a haven, but those that do not need it. The media and major advertisers have tapped into the dialect and made millions. Similarly, Spanglish has been used to promote products grossing $134 billions in revenues (Castro 167). But the major concern is that this culture (blacks and Latinos) are not receiving any benefits from their culture being borrowed.

Then slang becomes a bad thing. Industries and major advertisers can change their language. This week it can be Black English, next week it can be Spanglish and so on. But the harsh reality is that those who speak the dialect regularly, are tied to it and cannot escape it. What advertisers and the media do is to temporarily glorify speaking slang. But the actors can stop speaking slang, and the advertisers can stop trying to appeal to the black community, but the black children and young adults cannot lose the dialect. They are forced to go into the work place thinking that the way they speak is fine and that it is acceptable. However, it is not acceptable in the business world and many of them cannot find good jobs. The music and movie industries make millions of dollars from using these exaggerated characters, but they never do anything to improve the situation in the real ghetto or for the real poor. So not only have blacks been exploited for work hundreds of years ago, now they are being exploited for their culture and dialect. Blacks are being left with nothing, no history because it has been systematically wiped out of textbooks, no present and worse of all, no future because black culture has crossed over to a business rather than a lifestyle. Blacks can no longer thrive on being different and special because everyone is the same.

It is wonderful being black, because you are open to so many things and see things in a different light. You know that you come from a long line of navigators, explorers, mathematicians and scientists. You can be proud that you know where your people have been and that you are destined for great things. Although Black culture is very rich and interesting, it has its disadvantages. The major disadvantage is that it reflects blacks and the negative thoughts associated with blacks. These rich terms and expressions keep you (blacks) grounded, catches you just as you begin to take flight and brings you back down to African American life (Smitherman 163).

It is important to me to speak slang so that I too am not conformed by society. I am a rich, cultured individual, and my language is just one of the colorful things about me. I am full of flavor and style and my language allows me to voice that difference to society. I am a new and fresh voice. I am beautiful because of my color my texture, and my accent. Allow me to excite and intrigue your world, as I allow you into mine .

Works Cited

Castro, J. "Spanglish Spoken Here." Language Awareness: Essays for College Writers. Eschholz, Rosa, and Clark Editors. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1997. 165-68.

Seymour, D. "Black Children, Black Speech." Ibid. 151-59.

Smitherman, G. "They Done Taken My Blues and Gone: Black Talk Crosses Over."Ibid. 160-64.


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