forbidden tongues

Language is ubiquitous. It is the metaphorical glue which bonds us to one another, the ability to send thoughts and ideas across spaces. Through language we are able to have civilization, for it is through the production, proliferation and interpretation of information that we are able to learn from one another. 

When I was younger, I used to wish I could speak a different language. For years I tried to teach myself various tongues, all of which were chosen relatively arbitrarily, without realizing that I existed within a language reality that I was trained to never acknowledge.

A year ago I was fortunate enough to take a class called “Language and Identity in the African Diaspora.” The class was the first linguistics class that I’ve taken at Swarthmore. The course discussed the ways that language acquisition and socialization affect the performance and interpretation of the Black identity in Africa and the Americas. Interestingly enough, as I was taking “Language and Identity,” I was also taking a History class on the Gullah/Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. I did not expect the two courses to overlap when I originally picked them the semester before, and over the winter break I mostly forgot about the classes entirely. At the time, I was about to start my second semester of French, as well.

I started to learn French because I had gotten tired of learning Spanish throughout high school, middle school and elementary school. French, to me, was an easy language that I could use to improve my language skills overall without staying mired in Spanish, which, at the time, which was freshman year, reminded me only of high school.

Yet, as I was taking French classes at Swarthmore and learning about French grammar and phonetics and all that, I was also taking a class on sociolinguistics (Language and Identity) and creolization (History of the Gullah/Geechee). This semester, my Sophomore Spring, became “The Language Semester,” I guess.

As I was learning all of this information, about Swahili and the role that it plays in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, about how the Gullah brought with them their traditions from the coasts of Africa and retained them throughout three hundred years of enslavement, about how the French ruled over a vast empire in Africa which now contains the majority of the world’s French-speakers, I began to attempt to apply this information to my own life. For one, I asked my parents if we were Gullah, and they both replied that we’re not. My mother’s family is from coastal North Carolina, close to Gullah territory, but not Gullahs themselves. My father’s family is from both North Carolina and South Carolina, both mainland, both non-Gullah. So I ruled that out, although it was fun to learn about how my grandfather remembered his grandmother (my great-great-grandmother) as having “long, flowing, straight black hair like an Indian.”

In my “Language and Identity” class, we discussed the politically polarizing topic of “ebonics.” Even the term ebonics fulfills the task of removing from the language any semblance of legitimacy, and so I will call it what it is – a vernacular.   It was during this conversation that I had my language epiphany. Growing up, I thought the same thing of vernacular as most people do now – that the means by which Black people communicated with one another, and consequentially, understood their realities, was the product of being poorly educated. That if you taught a person who spoke in vernacular the proper way to speak Standard American English, you would succeed in cleaning them of the filth of what that language so often represents. When I went down South to visit my family, I was ridiculed by my cousins for the way that I spoke. “You speak proper,” they would chant, and would mock the ways that I enunciated the r’s on the ends of my words.

I had a conversation with my sister a few days ago about vernaculars. We talked about several things over the course of two hours, one of the topics being the vernacular and common American perceptions of it. My sister, like so many other people, understood AAVE as the result of poor access to educational resources in African-American communities. The similarities to the Standard English my family speaks and the vernacular of our cousins down South demonstrate that the two languages are definitely intelligible, while a Standard English speaker may strain to comprehend Gullah, a language rife with “Africanisms.” At this point I attempted to explain to my sister that AAVE was not the result of “Africans not being able to learn English” and that this theorem, which is so common and so dangerous, is the result of the “blank slate” model of African history; that we had nothing when we came to the America, our culture being stripped clean in the tragedy of the Middle Passage. This model of “tabula rasa” has rarely been attached to Europeans upon their arrival and assimilation into American culture, for such a statement would be preposterous. One can look around the United States and find towns settled by Germans and Norwegians and Italians, for the names of these towns and the families which founded them are still there. This isn’t the case for African-Americans, for a variety of reasons. The very name African-American invokes a continental body from which slaves were taken by boatloads. On these boats, these enslaved peoples spoke various languages, many of which were not inter-intelligible, for slaves were taken from as far north as Senegal to as far south as Angola. Upon arriving in the Bahamas, in Cuba, in Jamaica, or in the United States, slaves had no means of communicating with one another other than through English, a Germanic language with a phonology and grammar structure vastly alien to these Niger-Congo language speakers. Typical English phonemes, like the /ð/ or the /θ/ sounds in the words the and thistle morph into sounds familiar to speakers of Yoruba or Ewe or Kongo, most often /f/, /t/, or /d/. That’s why we see a lot of African-Americans, to this day, pronouncing the word teeth as teef or that as dat.

The conversation went on to discuss the stigmas attached to vernacular, often propagated by “real-world” scenarios. She mentioned the workplace, and said that if she heard a coworker talking like this, she’d probably wonder what was wrong with that person and why they spoke in such a way. I then told her that we are socialized to speak Standard English in a workplace, and that she would likely react the same way if she heard someone speaking Spanglish or Patwa. These Englishes are not seen as legitimate, because they are the product of mongrelization, taking what is considered pure (English) and ruining it through the interaction of other languages (Spanish, Kongo, Manding) It is not an issue of a language being illegitimate for there is no illegitimate way of expressing an idea or a concept through speech. These are entirely socialized behaviors, the likes of which must be unlearned.

Racism is a mechanism which provides the fuel to de-legitimize the ways by which persons of color live their lives. It breeds into the conscience of every citizen of a society, be them of color or not, notions which serve to ensure a sense of loathing at all which represents alterity, all which drifts beyond the comprehensible zone of the status quo. And considering that language serves as our foundation for understanding the world, the embeddedness of racist notions in our culture of language is but a means to a destructive end.

In my life, I’d like to focus closely on the roles that language plays in the ways that we understand our own realities. Language is one of those unspoken truths, studied furiously by scholars, but quite difficult to render understandable to those without a PhD in sociolinguistics. While I do not believe that a sociolinguistics degree is the path I wish to take, understanding the impact of society on our utilization of language, and consequentially, the means by which societal imaginations impact our comprehension of one another, opens doorways towards building a better culture. If I accomplish anything in my life, it will be to bring to the attention the accomplishments of a race so often misunderstood not because of what it accomplishes tangibly, but because of what it represents on a symbolic level.

We should not have to live in a world in which we must whisper to one another in forbidden tongues.

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