Identity and Ideology in Black Women's Talk about Their Talk: A Report of Research in Progress

By Scott, Karla D. | Women and Language, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview
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Identity and Ideology in Black Women's Talk about Their Talk: A Report of Research in Progress

Scott, Karla D., Women and Language

Scholarly studies of Black language use range from extensive attention to various grammatical forms to verbal performance and style. These studies assume Black women share all of the language use and particular communication styles of Black men. What is obviously missing in the literature on Black language use and communication are studies of Black women as a distinct speech community with their own idiosyncratic styles of interaction. This report of research in progress illustrates the need to examine the particularities of Black women as a speech community and more specifically how their talk is connected to their identity as Black women.

This study of Black women's talk about their talk includes observations of language use and multiple in-depth interviews about language use with nine young Black women. The initial phase of the study included interactions with the women in various settings where I was also able to observe each woman's language use and style. Interview data were collected in individual interviews with each of the women and in two small group interviews conducted with three women in each group. All interviews were audio taped and transcribed.

In order to identify "talking like a Black woman," tapes and transcripts of interviews were analyzed for the discourse markers and paralinguistic cues that identified instances of code-switching during interviews. Though there were occasions in the interviews when the women used a form of Black English vernacular rather than the General American speech they more often used to respond to interview questions, I do not identify the switch as an exclusive code-switch to Black English. Comparative analysis of the women's interviews reveals that this switch to a more casual style (which may or may not include the use of some Black English) is marked in four distinct ways: by the use of the word "girl", by an instance of teeth sucking preceding talk, by use of the word "look" at the beginning of a sentence, and by a change in paralanguage when discussing their experiences as Black women.

As the women in this study shared stories of interacting with other Black women, the word "girl" was often a part of the speech the women reported using with "their girls". In addition the women often used "girl" during the interview in response to a question or comment I made referring to my own experiences as a Black woman. Their use of "girl" with another Black woman who is not necessarily one of their "girls" but does share their same identity appears to demonstrate the solidarity use of this word as noted by Ms. magazine editor Marcia Ann Gillespie: "Girrl, Girrrl, Girrrl! I love the way the word vibrates on my tongue, rolls in my mouth. The way it growls, the way it can roar. I use it when talking with my sister friends - the women who know my stuff as I do theirs. I use it when the talk gets juicy, or down to the bone and everybody is being real" (Gillespie, 1994).

Instances of teeth sucking were also used frequently by the women in both reported speech and actual talk in the interviews. To suck teeth refers to the gesture of drawing air through the teeth and into the mouth to produce a loud sucking sound as an expression of anger, impatience, exasperation or annoyance (Rickford & Rickford, 1976). With its West African roots and use in many Caribbean cultures, the recognition rate of suck teeth is high among Black Americans and especially among Black females (Rickford & Rickford, 1976). The women in this study used teeth sucking frequently when they discussed or reconstructed instances where they were annoyed or angry at whites or Black men.

The word "look" was often used by the women as an example of what they said to whites in classroom interactions where they, as Black women, refused to remain silent on an issue. All of the women reported instances and examples from predominantly white classes where they spoke out in opposition to a white person's perspective on race or race relations.

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Identity and Ideology in Black Women's Talk about Their Talk: A Report of Research in Progress


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