Code-switching and synthesizing

Multilinguals

code_switchingI’m looking forward to seeing the movie In the Heights soon. Our family plans to see it soon in something called a “movie theater” or a “cinema.”

I came across this video, The First 3 Minutes of In the Heights Changed Everything. It’s referencing the Tony-winning musical, not the film. The angle is that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a synthesizer. No, not an electronic musical device but someone who takes, in this case, musical theater and Dominican and Puerto Rican influences and blends them together.

This resonated with me because there’s someone who I know who’s mentioned to me, more than once, that her son doesn’t consider Hamilton, Miranda’s follow-up, an “authentic hip-hop musical.” And this has been at the point just before a meeting when I can not respond.

Regardless of her son’s bona fides, Hamilton was never intended to be a hip-hop musical. As the In the Heights video notes, massively successful musical theater usually has to appeal to 55-year-old white women. And that’s the commercial gift of both of these shows, that they attract more than a narrow demographic market.

Language alternation

My wife is a teacher of English as a New Language. So she’s my resident expert for the concept of code-switching. Wikipedia notes that “In linguistics, [it] occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation or situation. Multilinguals, speakers of more than one language, sometimes use elements of multiple languages when conversing with each other.” Think Spanglish, for instance.

It’s something that non-white people do in America a lot, even if their native language is English. They often speak one way with their familiars and a different way with others.

This Mental Floss article about African American Vernacular English/African American Language is interesting because it got me to identify my duality.

That is to say that I’m not conversant in AAVE. The reason is that it was not modeled by the black people I knew best, the folks at the black church I attended as a child, my parents, and my grandparents. I never asked, but I surmise it’s that they felt its use was counter to their aspirational goals.

As the article notes: “In spite of its cultural popularity—and despite the fact that it is a language that is systematic and rule-governed in its own right—AAL has been used as a proxy for discrimination against its speakers everywhere from the classroom to the job and housing markets.” This is something that was true a half-century ago and still is.

My father, in particular, was bitterly and loudly opposed to the use of such vocabulary. He said so repeatedly, as my sisters can attest. So if I were to try to replicate the nuance, it would sound artificial and insincere.

AAVE to the ear

Yet much of the AAVE word usage sounds familiar to me. I understand it and don’t hear it as incorrect. For instance:
“HE BE DREAMING” AND “HE IS DREAMING” MEAN TWO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS IN AFRICAN AMERICAN ENGLISH…
Habitual Be: This verb refers to a regular occurrence—as in, “that dog be sleeping.”

Naturally, my favorite example of this involves music. Wee B. Dooinit by Quincy Jones and friends.

I know lots of people, mostly white but some black, who are greatly aggrieved by the use of the sound of AX for the word ASK. This has never really bothered me.

And, apparently, its origins are so old – as in Old English – that it shouldn’t bother you. The president of the American Dialect Society calls it “a feature of regular English.” But even if it weren’t…

Thus endeth today’s self-exploration.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

3 thoughts on “Code-switching and synthesizing”

  1. Good points! I first understood this from reading about linguistics in the book, Tower of Babel, by John McWhorter. There really are no “dialects,” just languages. Calling one language a “dialect” only happens because another language (spoken by people with money, influence, control of print and television and radio) has been awarded the concept of being a “standard” language.

  2. My (hopefully soon-to-be ex-) wife is a Spanish teacher and is always annoyed by my use of Spanglish aand poor accent, but I’ve never had any native-speaker been negative about my attempts. Likewise, my use of broken German when I visited overseas. Despite the French attitude toward linguistic purity and conservative’s insistence on the primacy of English, language of fluid, and that gives us the opportunity to play and be creative. And I say this despite a few of my own personal areas of linguistic resistance!

  3. The idea of code switching only applies to an individual. If a word or way of speaking from another language begins to be used by many people it might first be slang and then accepted. Examples are too numerous to mention.

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