Someone once told me, “You have a vernacular tongue.” At the time, it seemed like she cursed me. I felt bad without even knowing what she meant. The connotation of the word, from what I gathered meant something was wrong with the way I talked. So, I looked it up, and I thought it was a speech impediment. My grandfather always told me, “you have a tied tongue.” I went to speech classes a few times in grade school, but later didn’t qualify, in that my speech wasn’t affecting my grades. However, vernacular has more to do with dialect than speech. My research about this idea of the vernacular tongue led me to the acronym AAVE (African American Vernacular English). Many people disagree that there should be anything such as another form of English. Well, if you grew up in an African American home or neighborhood where I’m from, you quickly learned to code switch while at school or in public. As soon as I started school, I noticed that some words said at home sounded differently at school. Once I learned to say it “correctly” at school, I shared with my mom and dad. For instance, the words orange and onion. My mother and aunts pronounced it urnge and urnion. My parents pushed me to speak correct English at all times, for as much as they knew. But the truth is, this African American dialect or vernacular is just a part of the African American culture. Some African Americans will disagree, if they grew up in a more affluent area. The phrase fin to, I learned is short for finished to go. You are finished doing something and now you’re leaving. I found from my research that a great deal of the African American dialect came from what slave masters said and what black slaves actually heard. Since no one taught slaves English, they picked it up as best they could. The impact that the institution of slavery has on the African American culture is amazing and cannot be stamped out.
Many African Americans who are educated desire to pass the torch. We can also become very critical of our own. When the news interviews an African American, people in my culture are waiting to see if the person speaks dialect or proper English. If the person speaks anything other than correct English, a cringing takes place. The person speaking represents the way the world sees all of us. Some will say, “they sounded ignorant or uneducated.” On the other hand, if someone else in the culture sees an African American interviewed and they are speaking mainstream English, they might be called a “sell-out” or an “Uncle Tom.” So what do you do? When in Rome? Do as the Romans? Education is the key to becoming a leader and having a voice in a America, but we can not forget that some of us must take the charge to go back to lift others, rather than criticize. Also, others of us can’t be so prideful that we refuse to be lifted.
I could go on and on about this controversial topic. I do recognize that my culture is not the only culture struggling in this area. America is full of diverse dialects and languages. All people want to be heard. All people want to have a voice. So some leaders in various cultures will become educated in the King’s English, as my grandmother would say, and leap across barriers to create a voice that can be heard everywhere in America. So is it best to master a mainstream language, but hold on to your dialect? Or should you leave the dialect behind altogether? I would be a fraud if I told you that I speak correct English all day every day. My African American vernacular and my King’s English, I own them both. They allow me to build relationships in my culture, outside of my culture, and globally. So what do you think? Leave a comment.
by Harriette Thompkins