In Their Own Voices: Codeswitching and Code Choice in the Print and Online Versions of an African-American Women's Magazine

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper addresses a neglected subject at the intersection of race and gender, the written communicative practices of African-American women. Through a comparison of two articles from the print version of Essence magazine, which uses Standard English almost exclusively, with two articles taken from its online version, which uses liberal codeswitching between Standard English and African-American Vernacular English, I analyze both the stylistic choices contained in the magazine's two versions and the discourse in which they are situated. Specifically, I seek to demonstrate that the print version's use of African-American pragmatic features acts to produce a formal English that is distinctively African American, whereas the use of codeswitching normally reserved for casual conversation in the online version reflects the orality of electronic discourse. In so doing, I examine both the heterogeneity of African American women's discourse practices and how their discourse constructs and represents their experiences.

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The study and interpretation of African-American women's lives has been largely subsumed in the broader analyses of African-American issues and women's issues; thus most studies of women's and African Americans' speech have focused on the dominant groups: white women and African-American males (Etter-Lewis: xvi-xvii). However, the double discrimination that African-American women experience as a result of their dual status as members of two oppressed groups precludes facile assumptions that what is true for African Americans or for women is necessarily or invariably true for African-American women (Ibid: xvi). Such assumptions--that African-American women can be studied as women without reference to their blackness, or as blacks without reference to their womanhood--ignore the fact that gender, race and class identities are interrelated and inseparable (Houston 1992: 49).

Nevertheless, although feminist literary criticism has celebrated the language of African American women writers (see, e.g., Carroll 1994; Braxton & McLaughlin 1990; Evans 1984; Tate 1983), in the field of sociolinguistics studies of women's speech have tended to focus on the speech of white, middle-class speakers (Henley 1995: 361; see, e.g., Tannen 1990; Lakoff 1975), and even the literature on African-American speech, foregrounding male-dominated language performance studies conducted thirty years ago (Scott 2000: 238, referencing, e.g., Labov 1970, 1972), often omits mention of studies examining the speech practices of African-American women (e.g., 2001 Troutman; Houston 2000, 1992; Foster 1995: Etter-Lewis 1993; Morgan 1991; Mitchell-Kernan 1972). Moreover, virtually all of the sociolinguistic studies of African-American language have focused either on the unique grammatical, lexical and phonological features of African-American Vernacular English (see, e.g., Troutman 2001; Scott 2000; Bailey & Thomas 1998; Green 1998; Labov 1970, 1972), or on African-American verbal genres such as signifying, loud-talking, he-said-she-said, or playing the dozens (see, e.g., Smitherman 2000; Morgan 1991; Goodwin 1990; Mitchell-Kernan 1972). These studies call attention to the virtuosity and creativity of African-American speech; however, because their locus is predominantly informal settings, data-based studies of formal African-American English are essentially nonexistent in the sociolinguistic literature, thus leaving a major site of African-American discourse unexplored.

This paper endeavors in some measure to fill these gaps, by examining the language behavior of African-American women in the context of an enduring women's speech genre, the women's magazine. Through a comparison of two articles from the print version of Essence magazine, which uses Standard English almost exclusively, with two articles taken from its online version, which uses liberal codeswitching, I analyze both the stylistic choices contained in the magazine's two versions and the discourse in which they are situated. …