It's Not Only What You Say, But How You Say It: On Language and Class

Passing by Columbia University on Broadway and Amsterdam on my morning stroll to work, I noticed a flyer tacked to a lamp post as I waited to cross the street. The advertiser was offering linguistic lessons to non-native speakers to help them adapt to Standard English. The ad also offered to help those interested in eliminating regional dialectical variations. Reflecting on my own linguistic history, I realized how intertwined language was with my identity, particularly my social class.

Sociologists have long agreed that the way we speak is one of the indexes of social class. In the 1960's researcher William Labov examined linguistic variations between social classes in New York City and later deduced that inner city dialects have just as much variation and structure as standardized English.

As a formerly low-income girl from the Bronx, I can attest to Labov's findings. When conversing with my friends, my language was typically working class English with a little bit of street slang woven in. Our language had conventions and rules subject to evolution and its speakers abided by the do's and don'ts. Socked away in my bank of colorful lexicon included phrases such as "what's really good" and "that's fire," expressions that were often frowned upon by the adults and other "proper" folks.

Though my family didn't speak slang, their tongue definitely did not fit into the paradigm of Standardized English. We didn't articulate our consonants as harshly, and we were much looser with our sentence syntax. In Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, community psychologist Barbara Jensen bolsters the notion of the existence of socioeconomic linguistic differences, mostly focusing on conversational content rather than articulation and affirms that often content denotes linguistic variation between the social classes. Jensen's findings resonate powerfully with me. Even the content of my family's conversations varied--we didn't discuss politics, international affairs or our latest career exploits--those things didn't really exist for us. Somehow, we felt removed from those discussions. Instead, we spoke about family, life and love.

My life trajectory has since shifted, and as an adult privileged enough to have a middle class gig and a relatively extensive post-secondary education, I've become keenly aware of my linguistic class traversing as I use language to straddle class delineations. I've had many contentions with my linguistic lexicon, and have struggled with my verbal manifestations of language.

College was my linguistic niche. My school was located in the heart of the Bronx, and the student body consisted mostly of students of color in the lower to middle socioeconomic classes. It was considered a commuter school, and so many of my fellow students came from similar communities. I felt normal because my linguistic identity was legitimized by the presence of my peers who articulated much like me.

But in graduate school, I became cognizant of my dialect and its relationship to who I was. I thought I sounded urban. I knew I sounded like I was from the Bronx. I sounded poor. Experiences are often verbalized for conversational fodder, and I lacked the experiences of my more affluent peers, such as international traveling, a two-parent home and various other forms of socially accepted capital. I just didn't articulate myself the same way as my peers. Because of what society perceived (and myself in turn) to be a linguistic deficiency, I intuited that I wasn't as smart as my peers and didn't deserve to be sitting in an Ivy League classroom. My identity and my self-worth hinged on my language, and society told me that my language wasn't good enough.

And for a long time, I internalized the belief that my languages weren't good enough. To remedy my linguistic differences, I fought to over articulate my words, refrained from emphasizing my "b" when I mentioned my birthplace (everyone knows Bronxites pack a verbal punch with their "b's"), and spoke less frequently in class. At home, I was the purveyor of linguistic righteousness, correcting my family's pronunciation and verb usage, implicitly telling them that if my language wasn't good enough, neither was theirs.

In short, I consciously and subconsciously employed an internal and external hypervigilence centered on policing my language and articulation. For all of my educational and personal investment in issues of social injustices and systemic inequities, I sought to assimilate to the middle class culture, at least dialectally. This assimilation required the adoption of behaviors, standards and norms belonging to a largely middle class white patriarchal hegemony and was counterproductive to my passions of equality. My assimilation was subtle but noxious, as its aim was to eradicate a part of my identity that indicated I was from what Jacob Riis dubbed as "the other half" a century ago.

Thinking a firm command of Standard English supersedes any experiential or learned knowledge one possesses, my former dialectical beliefs mirror the general consensus. We tell each other that we must compartmentalize our languages and subsequently our identities, and that not all languages are created equal.

The problem lies in the fact that linguistic marginalization does not apply to everyone. It applies to society's deleteriously disenfranchised. We do not recognize the value in linguistic variations and content, nor do we merit the ability to code switch with enviable ease. I surely didn't.

So we must ask ourselves, who created these linguistic standards, and who has the authority to decide that our tongues are illegitimate, as Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldua poignantly points out? In How to Tame A Wild Tongue, Anzaldua remarks,

If you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity-I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.

We must legitimize our tongues. Language is not only identity, it is power. I have sought to reclaim the part of my identity that I have tried to stamp out, and now understand that identity means different things in different spaces. My friends' and families' languages helped shape my identity and understanding of the world and are just as valuable as my academic discourse. But one language no longer commands power over the others. They are all intrinsically a part of me.

I can speak my languages in tandem and I don't have to choose. In fact, I refuse to. Along with questioning who is setting these linguistic standards, I will create standards for myself and legitimize where I'm from. In my former quest to assimilate, I have lost some of myself. But I intend to hold onto what I have left.