Closing Social Distance on the Street
On my way to the nearest subway station, a colorful man standing on the corner approached me, advertising for a local business over a megaphone. He was doing his energetic best to get me to support a nearby salon. As I kept walking, I responded to let him know he had been heard, but that I wasn't interested. Why not? I told him I wouldn't be around long enough, that I wasn't a New York local. Where you from? Philly, and I was on the move, I said smiling, having used a phrase my mom often returned to.
But an interesting thing happened as I was talking to this guy.
But it was a matter of closing social distance, foregrounding familiarity, and of relating to this man in a way that made sense to me as another Black person.
In a few short seconds, I could feel myself speaking with a different rhythm and intonation, and an adjusted vocabulary and grammar. I was comfortable. He was friendly. And then, standing not far from Little Caesar's, he ventriloquized my words into his megaphone for all to hear: "Aiight, she on tha move, ya'll!"
For the duration of my exchange with this man, my White counterpart, a fellow university faculty member, had been a non-participant, even though she was standing right next to me. And by the way the man had talked, I knew he had been addressing only me.
A few steps beyond, a woman sat at a table displaying peeled mangoes, sliced and ready for sale in little ziploc bags. Immediately, I told my associate we would have to make a quick pitstop. Those mangoes were mine! I greeted the mango-seller-lady, and began to ask for all the fixings. This was the requisite chile and limón I've similarly asked for when purchasing mangoes on a stick from entrepreneurs at the local farmer's market in Santa Monica, California, near where my family lives, or when hanging with friends in Veracruz state years before. But this Bronx saleswoman did me one up, and offered to add sal, too. I was thrilled! Yes, please!
While she worked on adding those quick toppings, my associate began speaking to her in Spanish. I could detect her Castilian accent from years spent studying in Spain, and the saleswoman responded, with what sounded like a Dominican accent of her own.
Their brief exchange was simple but meaningful. It underscored to me how easy it can be to make assumptions about who speakers are, and tie these to expectations to our perceptions of their appearance and class standing. I was now a bystander to their Spanish chat, just as my counterpart had been a bystander to my previous AAL exchange on this same street. In each case, we were each participants in these exchanges by virtue of our communicative and cultural competence in the ways of speaking employed. Wasn't this fascinating? Wasn't this part of what continually makes cities compelling and multilayered semiotic spaces? Okay, Bronx, I thought to myself, you have my full attention.
What's Language Got to Do With It?
I had just spent the last day giving a guest lecture on linguistic inequality and diglossia at a Manhattan university. Inhabiting my professional personality (and dialect), I asked students and faculty of Arabic and other languages to examine their personal definitions of correct language.
There were three central questions I asked in my lecture that day:
- What is a language? Dialect?
- Who gets to determine what rules we follow when we communicate with each other in classrooms, on buses and trains, or at home?
- Why have rules for language at all?
Next, I suggested that we take a look at examples outlined by William Labov, a seminal researcher in sociolinguistics, in his now classic text, Language in the Inner City (1972). These were extracts of speech from Larry, a working class youth, and Charles, a middle-class adult. Both were New Yorkers and African Americans. Labov's main point was that even as Charles used words and turns of phrase that made us instantly consider him well-educated, he was much less eloquent and expressive than Larry, who spoke in AAL and communicated more directly, colorfully, and informally. As Labov concludes, 'Charles succeeds in letting us know that he is educated, but in the end we do not know what he is trying to say, and neither does he.'
IMHO, and in my experience as well, in communities in the U.S., France, Egypt, and elsewhere, linguistic inequalities persist partly because we are unwilling to question our own assumptions.
So I learned a lot from my visit to New York City in February--to keep my ears and eyes open, and to continue to seek critical understanding of my own orientation to others. Language is both a human right and a cultural and contextual innovation. Oh, and by the way, those mango slices were really, really good.