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Who you calling "coconut"?

 

By Ambra Nykol

 

The idea of "talking white" has been a lifelong battle for me. I've been accused of it, defended it, refuted it, and now, I shall attempt to explain it.

 

There are three ways in which a person could be accused of the heinous crime of "talking white". The focus of what I refute is the first, since it's more largely recognized.

 

To "talk white" usually means to speak in standardized English (whatever that is). For the sake of discourse, let's just say a working knowledge of the information contained in Strunk & White's Elements of Style should be in order for anyone who presumes to take on the "proper" usage of our great and almighty English language.

 

I grew up in the American Pacific Northwest where interesting dialect is seriously lacking. Unlike the South, where you can find hicks with worse sentence structure than the average fourth-grader, here in the land of Microsoft, we over-enunciate syllables, and use big dictionary words we don't understand.

 

When I went to university, speech was the first thing I was teased about amongst my black New Yorker friends, who dropped off the ends of words like bad habits.

 

I was told I had an accent and spoke "proper". Proper of course, by default indicates that any other type of language besides standardized Strunk & White English is uncivilized.

 

Just who perpetuated that myth?

 

I reject the aforementioned definition of "talking white" because standardized English is just that: standard. It's the commonly and widely recognized norm our society has chosen as a means of communication.

 

                          

 

This doesn't mean it's the best form (although I've had English teachers who would lay their lives down for this cause), or necessarily the "right" form, but it is the form, and a person would be ignorant and lofty to think they could be so flippant as to trounce upon its rich history and respect by walking into a job interview and dropping street slang.

 

That said, our reverence for the standardized English language as "god" goes borderline gluttony in higher academia as I recall once, I attempted to start flipping through a few doctoral theses for my own reading pleasure. Standard English is one thing -- high-falutin', snotty, over-intellectualized, and self-absorbed writing and talking is quite another.

 

 I'm no linguist, but I'm smart enough to know we haven't "arrived" in the current state of the English language. We owe much homage to the rich cultural history from which many of our words derive their origin.


Rhetoric
The second way a person can be accused of "talking white" is based on rhetoric. Since I reject the notion of using standardized English as being a "white attribute", I will say that I can accept the idea that certain language or words may warrant the title of "white speech" or "black speech" or whatever other culture from which a word or expression may find its root.

 

We've all heard the term "Ebonics" or Standardized Black Vernacular (both terms I reject), but I recently came across a plainly stated and thought-provoking piece by English nerd Avery Tooley on this very topic. Read it, and then pop an Aspirin.

                    

 

I am brave enough to say that there just might be some "black expressions" and "white words" and everything in between. There are certain words or idiomatic expressions that sprout out from varying cultures. Everyone say it with me now, "This is okay".

 

Example one: I'm a big fan of Yiddish. The intent, the clean vulgarity of it all, wrapped up in its straight forward nature are just fitting to my personality. I'm not sure why, but there are times I'd like to renounce my Gentile status and take that passage of scripture that speaks to being "grafted in" as literal and assume my position as a full-blown Messianic Jew; and then I woke up.

 

My fantasies of being a Jewish girl aside, Yiddish expressions stand alone as far from standardized English, definitively non-blonde-haired-blue-eyed, yet clear and somewhat accepted in communication interspersed with what we call Standard English.

 

Example two: When I was a teenager, I did a bit of acting and once landed myself in a Cap'n Crunch Christmas Crunch commercial (I'm going to break my contract by saying don't ever buy the stuff it's wretchedly bad I tell you).

 

In one scene, myself and the other white boy in the commercial were supposed to yell out exclamations of excitement over this very awesome, unique, (and wholesome) cereal set before us as Cap'n Crunch in a Santa Hat (really just a cardboard cut out since he's digitally added in the editing room) pranced around us shouting, "Merry Christmas". My first line in the sequence was to exclaim, "RAD!" Yes, that's right, "rad" r-a-d, rad.

 

Granted it was 1995, but as far as I was concerned, black people did not say "rad". That was a term reserved only for blonde-California-surfer-dude-Saved-by-the-Bell-Zack Morris types, of which I was not one.

 

I marched myself right over to the director and informed him of this blasphemous mistake. There was no way on God's green Earth Ambra was going on national television to declare that anything, let alone a brand of cereal was "Rad".

 

I re-negotiated the word "cool" into the script and all was well with the world. My point, however, being that in order to keep the commercial believable (HA!), we had to remain true to cultural expression.


Editor's note: The concluding part of this piece runs tomorrow

 

Ambra Nykol is a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Soundpolitics.com, Seaspot magazine and Modestly Yours. She owns and blogs at nykola.com

 

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