Decolonizing English from a Sociolinguistic Perspective

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By: Megan Salmon

I really like the idea of decolonization. While it has its challenges and uncertainties of implication, decolonization remains an imperative means to the end of a more equitable and accessible society. In order to decolonize ourselves, we must re-examine every approach we take to the world around it. This doesn’t necessarily mean every approach we take must be replaced. Instead, decolonization asks us to simply examine our approaches, understand the historical reasons we take them, and recognize that they give us privilege though they are arbitrary in comparison to any other approach. In class today, we discussed a few of many different approaches worthy of re-examining, such as education, mathematics, and language.

As an enthusiastic polyglot with a background in Hispanic linguistics, I was especially intrigued by the language aspect. What makes a language attractive? What kills it? Of course, English is the language of imperialism so it is attractive because a) it is the language of the colonizer, who holds the power and b) it is the language of the colonizee, so its usage is widespread therefore acquisition is strategically sound. Thus, English has become an international lingua franca, resulting in many non-English speakers (for lack of a better, less colonized word) emphasizing the acquisition of English for economic, social and political gains. There is a reason that L1 (first language) Spanish speakers in the United States drop off at the third generation. The first generation arrives speaking Spanish but wants their children (second generation) to have better opportunities so they encourage English language acquisition, but still require them to speak Spanish for communication. Once their children have children (third generation), English acquisition is still emphasized for opportunity, but the requirement of Spanish fades as it is no longer necessary for parent-child communication. The loss of native languages makes strategic sense. However, that’s not to say it isn’t rooted in problematic colonial standards of assimilation. This is where the job of language decolonization begins.

However, when we discussed language decolonization in class, we put focus on standard languages other than English rather than specific dialects or varieties of languages. As a linguistic student, all I could think about was my experience with African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE is a variety of English that exists within the Black community of the United States that includes its own phonetics, lexicons, grammar, and syntax. It is the “slang” or “street talk” at best, and “broken English” at worst, that we often hear black American rappers, celebrities, community members and other informal actors using to communicate. For example, where a General American English (GAE, or standard English) speaker may say There isn’t anything going on, an AAVE speaker may instead say Ain’t nothing going on. Believe it or not, there are rules to this dialect, just like GAE, that dictate what is communicable and what isn’t. In fact, AAVE is a more technically complicated dialect of English than GAE because of its unique and intricate distinctions of tenses and aspects (chronology). For example, an AAVE speaker could use any of the follow sentences to describe an event in the past tense:

“I been bought it,” “I done bought it,” “I did buy it,” “I do buy it.”* Each of these sentences in “broken English” actually specifies a different point in the past tense, ranging from far into the past to the very recent past, so they all mean very different things. GAE speakers will say “I bought it” for every single one of these sentences in the past tense and does not have any distinction whatsoever as to when in the past the even occurred. This is just one example as to how AAVE is a more technically complicated dialect of English to understand and speak than GAE.

So why is it stigmatized? Why are AAVE speakers reduced to being “uneducated?” Why is AAVE-origin slang looked down upon? Again, this is pretty obvious, as it is in the title. AAVE is predominately spoken by African Americans, or black people. Reducing the AAVE dialect of black Americans to an uneducated, lazy, sometimes even “thuggish” degradation of English is colonialism at work. Black parents teach their children to code switch between AAVE in informal situations and GAE in formal situations, and even to “white it up” by using GAE in situations where structural racism becomes a direct and immediate threat, such as a confrontation with a police officer. Does that process sound familiar?

Thus, I firmly believe that AAVE and other dialects of English, as well as other marginalized dialects of many colonial languages, have a place at the table of decolonization. We can see a similar phenomenon with the distinction of high and low German— high being the standardized dialect of typically the upper class, and low being the “informal” dialect of historically lower-class citizens. Yes, they are dialects of colonial languages, but they are specifically the dialects of colonized (or in low German’s case, marginalized) peoples. These dialects suffer, too. AAVE was derived from the forced acquisition of the English on African American slaves combined with phonetic, lexical, grammatical, and syntactic systems from various African languages. It was further distinguished from GAE through segregation as blacks were most typically exposed to other blacks who were AAVE speakers and less exposed to white GAE speakers.

Now, I am not exactly arguing for teaching AAVE in schools in the name of decolonization. Far from it, the mode of AAVE acquisition echoes the methods of disseminating information by black slaves in the United States: word of mouth. Histories, entertainment, education, and other forms of information were taught primarily by word of mouth in the black community for centuries. Institutionalizing the use of AAVE now would just be colonizing it. I am simply asking for parents, educators, authority figures, and any other key perpetuators of GAE dominance this: to examine their use of GAE in comparison to AAVE, understand the historical reasons behind the stigmatization of AAVE, and recognize the privileges they hold as GAE speakers though it is arbitrary in comparison to AAVE.

Now I done told ya.

*Source of examples:

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.