Friday, September 2, 2011

Optional Linguistics: African American Women's Language

This post is going to be a little bit odd because I am not going over a novel or a poem or a short story or even a non-fiction story. Sonja Lanehart’s African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education, and Identity, is a collection of research done on the language of African American women (AAWL). Most research done on the language of African Americans (AAL) has focused on the language of the males and largely ignored the females. So Dr. Lanehart decided to focus her book specifically on African American females by pulling from her own research and the research of other prominent leaders in the field as well as some of her own students. A few of the names I even recognized from my time here at UTSA. I will have to qualify this by saying that I really don’t get linguistics. The politics and the terminology are usually way over my head and it has never been something I was generally interested in. With that said, there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed, but there were many more parts that I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone what they are supposed to be about.


There really isn’t much to say here for this book. It is linguistics research with each chapter coming from a different contributor. There are four different parts that each deal with a different subject area, and even each article or chapter is different in what it deals with specifically. Some chapters will focus on a specific book or movie, others focus on a specific region and type of AAWL (the chapter on Barbados was incredibly fascinating to me), while others are case studies that focus on a specific set of people with the research done through interviews and observation.


The themes of the research typically depend on the section. Part I deals with Language and Identity, which focuses largely on how black women are perceived and therefore portrayed through language. Also, this section focuses on how the language and the perceptions of others help shape how black women, especially young girls, perceive and view themselves and their own interactions. What I generally gained from it was that among other black people, these young black girls that were observed are smart, confident, and self-assured young women. But once they enter into an environment that is more integrated, they all of a sudden have an “attitude.” Interesting stuff.

Part II was about Discourse, Grammar, and Variation, and it was also the section I got the most lost in. I am just not used to the scientific-sounding terminology, and while I liked the charts and graphs that were included in a lot of the chapters, I really couldn’t make much sense of them. Part II focused on the specific details about AAWL that make it different from not only Standard English, but also the dominant AAL that is spoken by black males. Much like the first section, case studies are used that focus on a specific set of girls or women.

The third section starts to explore how black women are portrayed in Film and Literature. Now, this is the stuff that to me gets a little tricky, only because I feel like anyone can make almost any little thing in a book or movie represent what they want to fit their cause. Not that every single chapter doesn’t make some fantastic points. Black females in popular culture are often, according to some of the chapters, portrayed as jezebels, mammies (think Gone with the Wind), and/or just loud and obnoxious with a castrating effect on black men. Some movies that are mentioned are the Oscar winning Crash, Gone with the Wind, and even The Matrix.

The final section takes on the issues of Performance and Community. The chapters here include a case study on an African American owned beauty school that focused on hair care for black women, the language of black women in the church, and the performances and music of Erykah Badu and Beyonce. This is probably the section I found the easiest to understand, but also the section I found to be the most random, if that makes sense. Even so, I enjoyed the focus on how black women operate in relation to each other and when performing for a wide audience. The juxtaposition of Erykah Badu and Beyonce was a great way to end the book.


As I already mentioned, black women have been largely omitted from the research done pertaining to AAL; therefore, it was necessary for there to be a focus on AAWL, which has proven to be different from its counterpart in a few ways. Also, while there has been research into the language and speech of women in America in general, African American women have been largely left out of that research as well. The issue is similar to that of the fight for the right to vote. Black women were left out of the fight for black men to vote, and the right for women to vote focused mostly on white women. With both issues, black women have had a difficult time figuring out exactly whose jurisdiction they fall under, leaving them to kind of create their own.

In the spring of 2008 Dr. Lanehart held a conference on African American Women’s Language and also taught a course at UTSA on the subject. That of course fed into the book, which was published in 2009. It is one of only a few books out there that focus specifically on the language of black women. But I am sure more will follow in the coming years.

I am already dreading the next post because it will deal with the poetry of Alexander Pope. I am a little more than half-way done reading what is required, but I am already thoroughly annoyed…

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