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Monday, July 5, 2010

Yeah, You Betcha Dere: the Power and Politics of Code Switching

I want to know... whether they are deranged freaks, murderers who committed crimes in the name of the government, or whether they are forcing the Afrikaner to confront himself.  More to the point-- what do I have in common with the men I hate the most?...

I interview them one after the other in a quiet corner of the Pretoria Synod hall.  "You know, your whole body language and tone of voice change when you are with these men," says an English-speaking colleague.  "I couldn't hear what you were talking about, but there is a definite intimacy..."  I say nothing.  I did use all the codes I grew up with, and have been fighting against for a lifetime.  But now I want a good story and I want to understand them.  (117-118)
--Antjie Krog, talking about the Vlakplaas Five, in Country of my Skull 117-118)

Choosing one set of codes over another can often involve power relations among certain classes or cultures.  Social codes can have political or personal cachet-- delineating who's in the club, who's on the outside, or who has the superior social role, for instance.  As somebody navigating through a culture whose cultural layers are also divided into linguistic layers, Antjie Krog's code switches-- and power plays-- often fall along linguistic lines.  She switches into the verbal and non-verbal intimacy of Afrikaans when talking to the Vlakplaas Five in order to gain their trust.  A certain inflection in Afrikaans over the phone is enough to provoke panic even before the death threat is pronounced.  And sound of an English accent against her Afrikaans is enough to put her at a rhetorical disadvantage in a philosophical debate.  The language you use and codes you employ-- or have employed against you-- can have a profound effect on one's social positioning. 

For an extreme example, my first teaching job in the deep South was on the coast, and one or two of my students spoke the Sea Island Creole dialect (also known as Gullah).  It's not a matter of bad grammar; Gullah has distinct western African parallels and, if  you learn the rules, it makes perfect sense.  But these kids were effectively told that their home English was not welcome at school because the grammar rules they followed were "wrong."  I only worked in an after-school tutoring program in the inner city for one afternoon because I couldn't stand listening to their otherwise well-intentioned and sweet volunteer teacher constantly scolding the kids for their "gutter"  English.  In short, the kids were forced to "talk white," as some of them put it, and they resented it.

I was torn on this.  On the one hand, my job was to teach college freshmen to express themselves in their own language.  For me, that means writing to their own community in an expressive, idiomatic Gullah.  On the other hand, I was also supposed to teach them how to write papers for college classes.  That meant teaching them the language codes of the university and forcing them to write in standard English.  I was supposed to teach them the language codes required to be a part of and an agent within the "academic" social set. So, I marked anything outside of standard English wrong-- and I felt like a heel while doing it. 

Although these are heavily politicized examples in America, almost every person has some experience with this issue of navigating through different social spheres with different language.  Many people speak completely different languages at home or work; others have a vocabulary for certain exclusive societies.  We have to switch in and out of these social circles linguistically to navigate.  Language is power. 

My own experience has been far more mundane than my students from the Sea Islands, as it's only an issue when navigating between my home culture and academia.  For instance, when I was in Montana a few years ago on my way to visit my grandparents, we stopped in a town we used to live in to visit some friends.  My parents caught up with two of their friends, the "Fosters" at an old cafe on the edge of town, a standard burger-and-steak joint with a fiberglass mustang out front.   Mrs. "Foster" has Blackfeet heritage and her husband was a retired rodeo bull rider.  They raised three plucky, strong-willed daughters whom I used to play with when I was little.  After my father cheerfully explained to Mr. "Foster" that I was still in school for my PhD, my mother joked, "In a couple more years she's going to be too educated to speak to us anymore."  Ouch.  The "Fosters" both laughed.  I looked over at my mother, set my jaw, and said in my best high line accent,
"Hey now, hold on dere-- I don' wan' no sheepskin 'f it means I can't be a normal person."
 The speed at which I unconsciously switched into this gear surprised me.  When my parents tried to suggest I was falling out of their collective society, the only way I felt I could respond was by changing my language to demonstrate otherwise.  Judging by the raised eyebrow and grin I got, I think Mrs. "Foster" (who was born twenty miles from my birthplace and whose accent is similar to mine)  got the point.   

In this case, my code-switching was mainly an issue of reinforcing my place in my community in a way my parents would understand.  But many times, this code-switching is more about power relations than belonging.  The powerful set gets to determine which codes are acceptable and which aren't allowed.  Think back to the Krog example I shared with you at top; Krog's Afrikaner accent puts her at a disadvantage with English South Africans, but it lets her move freely among the Vlaakplas Five because she's part of the group.  If you follow a different set, then you're out of power.  Although the writing is a little bit questionable, Ellen Cushman's book The Struggle and the Tools was an important first step to understanding the politics of language and code-switching from a compositional standpoint.  The community she studies is an inner-city minority community, and she follows its linguistic strategies (like code-switching) for survival against the local bureaucracy. 

But the struggle for power and language is everywhere-- not just the inner city.  Everybody wants to fit in somewhere, and everyone learns and uses the languages of certain groups to their own advantage.     Usually I unconsciously switch out of my Montana high-line accent when I'm talking to my professors, and I especially did it when Sarah Palin was running for VP back in 2008 because her so-called "Mooseburger" accent (and by extension, mine) had been branded by the literati as "ignorant."  I just couldn't stand the funny looks.

But I was surprised to catch myself babbling on angrily in my tepid Canadian wannabe accent in the middle of class shortly before the election was over.  The class discussion had wandered off-topic for a few minutes to politics, so the professor proceeded to explain how all people who voted a certain way (people like my father) were all a bunch of rifle-toting, truck-driving trailer trash with GEDs and questionable religious beliefs.  (Well, it was something along those lines.)  Even though I didn't respond back to his flaming remarks directly, I did spend the rest of class glaring a lot and sounding like a stage extra from Fargo while throwing out words like "ain't" and "ya know" and "you betcha."  Why did I do it?

It took a little while to figure it out: even though I didn't want to challenge him openly in class,  I still wanted to create distance between him and myself, between his views and my world.  So I code switched out of an academic register and in to the social class he was mocking to show where my loyalties lay.  I linguistically walked out of the academic sphere, so to speak, and slammed the door behind me.  

So, people often switch in and out of groups by switching in and out of certain registers or the ways that they talk.  People can choose to identify with or against communities with their language.  This gets really interesting, for instance, if you start digging through The Laramie Project.  Who is identifying with whom? Can we get a sense of community or alignment based on the linguistic codes each one follows?  Are the interviewers or interviewees trying to place themselves within social groups, or without? 

Maybe. I'm not really convinced that you can, but we'll look few interesting spots in the two TLP plays in the next few weeks nonetheless, just to see what we can find.  We'll keep these ideas about language, and codes, and code switching-- belonging, maneuvering, advantage and disadvantage-- to see if we can find different languages, and codes, in The Laramie Project.

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