TALKING BACK TALKING BLACK BY JOHN MCWHORTER

 

reviewed by Ryan Jones



Talking Back Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franc
by John McWhorter
Bellevue Literary Press
2017

In Talking Back Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca, John McWhorter gives us a book that critically assesses commonly accepted views of language and dialects. He questions not just how we speak, but how we think and grow as people. His main argument is that Black English, sometimes referred to as “African American Vernacular English” or even dismissed by some as “Ebonics,” is a legitimate language and should not be viewed as simply slang (defined as individual words which can be adapted into the national language—Standard English in this case). For example, you would never listen to someone speaking Spanish and think, “That person is butchering the English language.” This is because we recognize Spanish and English as distinctly different languages. Similarly, McWhorter explains that Black English speakers are in fact bidialectal, that they switch back and forth between Standard and Black English, and that such talents are culturally acquired.

McWhorter goes on to argue that in many other countries, people speak in a dialect that differs from the official language of the nation. In Sicily, the national language is Italian, but many speak Sicilian. In Haiti, the national language is French, but many speak Haitian Creole. As such, why do so many Americans view Black English as a failure to grasp Standard English, rather than simply another dialect?

McWhorter addresses many of America’s linguistic hypocrisies, like the racist “But they can’t speak that way in job interviews” argument, by claiming that everyone speaks differently in a professional environment compared to a casual one. Anyone with common sense wouldn’t leave a job interview with “See you later, dude,” so why do non-Black Americans doubt that a Black English speaker would switch to Standard English in such cases? McWhorter states that this practice is known as “code-switching”—choosing how to speak depending on where you are— and that it is common among bilingual people. Code-switching is just one of many instances where McWhorter considers complex issues and leaves the reader with a more clear understanding of language and the implicit assumptions surrounding it.

McWhorter notes that older countries, such as the United Kingdom, are filled with many distinctive dialects. And that although the United States has only been around for less than three hundred years as a sovereign nation, it is showing similar linguistic patterns. This divergence of language is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it something to criticize, McWhorter says. It should be celebrated. The developments of dialects are how cultures grow and continue. In this time of great anxiety and injustice, McWhorter’s book provides insight into a cultural issue that has long been written off and snubbed by many. And as such, his book is proving itself to be about so much more than just language.

Talking Back Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca is available for purchase here.