Academic journal article International Journal of Whole Schooling

Negotiating Speech and Language in the African Diaspora: Politics of Linguistic Diversity

Academic journal article International Journal of Whole Schooling

Negotiating Speech and Language in the African Diaspora: Politics of Linguistic Diversity

Article excerpt


"The men of Gilead said to him, Are you an Ephraiminite? If he said, No, They said to him, Then say Shibboleth; and he said Sibboleth: for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slew him...." Judges 12:6.


The quote above describing the Biblical account of the battle between the Ephraimites and the Gileadites illustrates how pronunciation of one word, changed by the omission of the "h," sound served to identify escaping Ephraimites who claimed to be Gileadites in order to escape death. The Ephraimites' speech revealed their identity, and forty-two thousand of them were killed in this battle. Despite the date and context of this example, speech and language are still used as tools to identify, demarcate, and at times to dominate and oppress those without power in various societies.

How we speak and the languages we use serve to distinguish among nationalities, social classes and groups, educational levels, and to some degree, age and gender. History, culture, geography and other environmental factors, as well as personal experiences, all influence what we say and how we say it. Speech reflects social relations in a society, and social relations, in turn, shape/affect/determine how people speak as well as how they respond to various forms and patterns of speech. The languages or dialects spoken by the dominant groups in a given society will be that of those accorded power and prestige.

Burling (1973, p. 27) reviews the source of a language's status and prestige in the following:

   In a society like ours it may be inevitable that the language of 
   those with money, education, and high social status comes to be 
   regarded as the best. These are the people who often set the 
   standards.... But if by some magic our class system were suddenly 
   overturned, new forms of speech would surely acquire prestige. If, 
   for instance, those who held positions of power and respect 
   regularly used double negatives, while the humble members of the 
   lower classes never did so, we can be confident that double 
   negatives would soon begin to sound elegant, simply because elegant 
   people used them. 

Lukia Koliussi (2004, p.107) observes: "Language is the most important means of human interaction and social survival. By understanding, inferring, and relaying meaning, we creatively negotiate, construct, reconstruct, and define the norms and rules by which we live and the identities we either are 'assigned' by society or choose to take in certain situations." How does the exercise of power to construct and define these societal norms affect students of African descent and what roles do educators and schooling play in maintaining the linguistic status quo? My goal in this article is to encourage educators and others to examine the links between attitudes towards speech and language of students of African descent and social justice. In addition to my graduate training in communication and my experience as a communications consultant, I have researched Black linguistics extensively in order to write the course: "Black Speech and Language Communication Behaviors," which has been approved and is now being offered at this university. However, in this article, my experiences as student, elementary school teacher, student teacher supervisor and professor in three cultural contexts are scaffolded around and used to illuminate research perspectives on the politics of black speech and language communication.


Often during their formative formal and informal learning experiences students become socialized to society's norms or designations/classifications of 'good" and 'bad' English. …

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