Ebonics # 2: the blaccent

I am a big fan of language podcasts such as Radiotopia’s The Allusionist, BBC Radio Four’s Word of Mouth and Slate.com’s Lexicon Valley. It was on this last show that I heard an interview with linguist John McWhorter about the blaccent. This term, coined by McWhorter himself, is a portmanteau word combining black and accent. The interview was based on an article McWhorter had written for Guernica, an online art and politics magazine: Thick of Tongue.

The very idea of the blaccent is contentious. In the OJ Simpson trial one of the tensest moments came during Christopher Darden’s cross-examination of a defence witness, Robert Heidstra, a neighbour of Nicole Simpson. The lawyer asked Heidstra about a statement he had allegedly made to a friend in which he had said that one of the voices he allegedly heard in the alley behind Nicole Brown Simpson’s condominium on the night of the murder was that of an older black man. Cochran was indignant:

You can’t tell by someone’s voice when they’re black. That’s racist. This statement about whether somebody sounds black or white is racist, and I resent it. I think it’s totally improper in America at this time in 1995 just to hear this and endure this.”

It was a typically brilliant piece of lawyering; Cochran was implying that the very notion that black speech has a particular sound is racist stereotyping. In reality, the vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. But, it is not a subject to bring up in polite company.

McWhorter wants to challenge the assumption that educated black people talk just like educated white people, while less educated black people usually (but not always) speak a combination of Southern English and bad grammar. Black people when meeting will tend to speak more similarly to one another than either of them do to white people. Most will code-switch between standard and Black English to varying degrees. This may be considered a shared solidarity in a racist society that has traditionally looked down on them. Even the most educated black people typically talk with particular vowel “colourings” and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” after a few sentences. Black and Southern English may overlap, but they are not the same. McWhorter asks if the Reverend Martin Luther King and the white police officers who beating and arrested him spoke the same dialect.

What does the blaccent sound like? Here are a few typical features I found online, although as I mentioned before, there is an overlap with other dialects:

Word-final devoicing of /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/, whereby for example Cub sounds like cup

Poor and pour become homophones

The ing becomes in: running” is pronounced as runnin

Final consonant cluster reduction is typical. In the word test both the /s/ and the /t/ are voiceless, so the /t/ is not pronounced: test is pronounced [tɛs]

Door is pronounced doah and sister sistah.

Before nasal consonants (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/), /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced [ɪ], making

“pen”→ “pin” homophones.

The distinction between /ɪ/ and /iː/ before some certain consonants is frequently reduced, making feel become fill.

McWhorter also refers to the timbre, fine-grained differences in vocal placement and texture that analysts have yet to characterize in detail, though they can easily be picked up when heard.

Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong or inferior about with this. Linguists prefer neutral descriptions of how language works. There is nothing inherently black about the sounds and it is obviously not genetic. After English came to America, as languages are wont to do, it developed in many directions, of which the black variety is but one example. As McWhorter points out in his inimitable style, the way a sounds change is no more meaningful in itself than “changing hemlines, the fact that the fade-out on pop recordings went out of fashion, or that avocado was such a popular colour in home décor for a while.” But as these random changes accumulate to two different dialects, over long periods, they’ll seem more and more distinct. This is why black people have a different sound than whites. Nothing else should be read into this phenomenon and it shouldn’t be seen as a degradation or departure from Standard English:

“This black sound has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one is capable of expressing their feelings elegantly, convincing others to their point of view, weaving an engaging story. It’s just a matter of some vowels—it’s like the difference between one carpet colour and another, nothing more. Black and Standard English share the relationship of two sisters, not that of a mother and her wayward daughter.”

McWhorter complains that the same who refuse to countenance the existence of such a thing as a black sound will notice immediately when a black person “sounds white”. If a black person can sound white, and this accusation is uncontroversial in black America, then the norm must be for black people to sound different. McWhorter has an interesting perspective – he has the wrong voice, he doesn’t have the blaccent. When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off and can be a social handicap in the black community, where he can come across as stand-offish. You seem to purposefully distancing yourself from the normal black way because you want to be white. He says this has led to him rubbing many black people up the wrong way.

Of course the opposite discrimination is far more destructive. Sounding black on the phone makes you less likely to be shown a flat or house or to be called in for a job interview. Black English is seen as less intelligent. As I pointed out in my post Ebonics: Is You Is or Is You Ain’t a Language?, Ebonics is not broken language, but a dialect of English.

Nowadays the “black sound” has acquired a certain cachet in mainstream society, through the popularity of hip hop. But this too brings its own controversies. We have what is known as cultural appropriation. This was reflected in a musical storm about Iggy Azalea. Now I must admit I was not aware of the oeuvre of Ms Azalea before writing this post. Here she is performing Fancy:

She came in for a lot of criticism in an article in The New Republic, Iggy Azalea Gets Away With Reverse Minstrelsy Because There’s a Market for It. Azalea makes a clear effort to sound distinctly black in her accent and intonation. What a strange world we live in! John McWhorter gets flak for not sounding black enough, whereas Iggy Azalea is trying to sound too black. Is she racist? She says she was inspired by Tupac. There is no doubt that hip-hop music is ubiquitous these days and it would be surprising if it didn’t a generation of kids of all races. Nevertheless, there is something a little jarring listening to a twenty-something, who grew up in a small town in Australia (Mullumbimby, New South Wales), rapping about Murda Bizness in a thick Brooklyn accent. She does seem to be a marketing executive’s sanitised, less threatening version of hip-hop. There is nothing new about this, though. Anyone familiar with the history of popular music twentieth century will recognise this phenomenon.

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