Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America

By Geneva Smitherman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO PART THREE

A FUNDAMENTAL RULE for using a language is knowledge of that language’s cultural codes. As Fanon put it, to speak is to assume a culture. It is not enough just to know the syntax of a language, to know how to pronounce its sounds, to know its many words. You need also to know the rules of speaking the language in the social and cultural contexts that are an inextricable dimension of any language. Or as one scholar put it, being competent in a language means you know who can say what to whom and under what conditions (Hymes, 1974). This linguistic principle was only an abstract concept to me until my introduction into the world of professional conferences many years ago. At the time, I was still a young member of the “Great Unwashed”—or ghetto, as they say these days. The speaker at the conference session my college advisor had steered me to was a white male linguist. The topic: Black English. The audience was a racially-mixed crowd of nearly 300 people. In his talk, the speaker kept bemoaning the fact that research on Black English was being blocked by “middle-class niggers, ” an expression he used at least three times in his presentation. Although some people walked out after the third “middle-class niggers, ” I recall that no one challenged the speaker about his use of “nigger. ” While it is true that African Americans do use the term, pronouncing it as nigga, and further, while it is the case that, among Blacks, it has a variety of meanings, only one of them negative (see e.g., Major, 1994; Smitherman, 1994b) this linguist had violated one of the two basic rules governing the use of this term: (1) nigga cannot be used by white folk; and (2) Blacks should not use the term in the public arena, and particularly not in the presence of whites. Although this second rule has been relaxed considerably, with the advent of Hip Hop Culture and the emergence of what Spears

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