Perception Of Language – Will Jennings, Tuesday Thoughts

Will Face

So I’ve been thinking about language ideology a lot since we started working on Phreaking, our internet play. Well, not just since Phreaking – I began thinking about it regularly after working with the White Privilege Issue Group and started having conversations with community members about white privilege and institutional racism. Language ideology is about the perception of languages and dialects and how specific languages and dialects can alter the way you might view the speaker’s belief system, class, or intelligence. An easy example for all actors that have taken a dialect class – if you are asked to speak in a British dialect, you can alter the dialect based on how you want that character to be perceived. Lower class characters may use cockney whereas a higher class character may use Received Pronunciation (RP). Since actors have learned that cockney typically represents a lower class character, if they meet someone with a cockney accent in life, they may make assumptions about that person’s income level or intelligence. This is just one of many examples of how language ideology breeds prejudice.

The example I have dealt with more often in my life is the perception of AAVE (African American Vernacular English). AAVE, which is also called Black English, is often referred to as “lazy English” or “bastardized English.” This is because there is the perception in America that there is a “right” way to talk and a “wrong” way to talk, and of course AAVE is usually perceived as the “wrong” way to talk. AAVE is phonetically similar to standard American English, but it differs in grammar. Some of the features in AAVE are that the final consonant is not spoken (runnin’ rather than running) and the verbs are often removed or changed (He runnin’, He be runnin’, He bin runnin’ instead of He is running). Therefore, it does not entirely adhere to the rules of standard American English, and so those who would say standard American English is the way we in America should be talking would say that AAVE speakers are not speaking correctly.

Where this is most problematic, however, is in the world at large. Instead of analyzing the differences between AAVE and standard American English, a person might make judgements about an AAVE speaker’s class, intelligence, or belief system.  This seems insane when I think about it, because a person might be raised in an area where AAVE is prevalent, and I could accidentally make judgements on a person based on the dialect with which they’re speaking. Even more problematic is that I could think that person is dangerous and feel the need to protect myself. Again, just based on the fact that they have a different cultural background from myself. This isn’t a conscious choice. Nobody trains their officers to recognize the difference between “He is running” and “He be runnin’” and treat different speakers differently, but it’s a prejudice bred by society.

Black English

Thinking and learning about these differences made me realize how we deem some languages and dialects superior to others. We say Black English is inferior to White English which influences our actions towards an entire race. And ultimately the study of language ideology leads to the realization that no language or dialect is innately better; the superiority that we see is entirely due to its perception. But yet we spend so much time trying to be able to speak professionally, get rid of our accents, and work to change each aspect of ourself that does not align with what we take to be “right.”

It’s now tough to change back to what originally made me write this, but I’m going to force it anyway. Critical Point is writing a show that uses “netspeak.” We are calling what would ordinarily be acts and scenes, “tabs” as a way of structuring the show. We are using abbreviations in our text and using grammar that is even farther from standard American English than AAVE. And every fiber of my being is resisting that. Last night at a reading of a scene that Dylan wrote, I sat staring at the word “d00d” on my screen for several minutes wondering, “Is this what it’s come to?” I should add that I think netspeak and a more internet-friendly structure are necessary for this show, and the direction we should be heading in, but there’s a part of me that just wants to make everything look the way I’ve been taught. I want to go through what’s been written and change all of the grammar mistakes to the “right” way. But I have to resist that urge and remember that netspeak is not the “wrong” way, and it never was. It is every bit as valid as the way I’ve been taught and if we’re diving into internet culture, we need to remember that. But, we also need to remember the bias toward netspeak our audiences will certainly have. We need to make sure we know how the perception of netspeak can interfere with how the audiences view our character’s class and intelligence. And while I’m working on this show, I need to push so that I view netspeak as valid when I’m not just intellectualizing.


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