Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Code-Switching?

Was she pandering to a black audience? She wasn’t born and raised in the ghetto. She went to college. She’s demonstrated the capacity to be articulate, even if what comes out of her mouth may fall shy of knowledgeable. But when she got up to speak at Rev. Al’s National Action Network, suddenly Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was talking like AOC from the hood.

Some took her to task for pandering to a black audience, using words, inflections that might be expected from some black people, but were called the equivalent of “blackface.”

John Cardillo of Newsmax tweeted, “In case you’re wondering, this is what blackface sounds like,” while Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire charged that Ocasio-Cortez, in this speech, “speaks in an accent that she never uses.” Lawrence Jones, a Fox News contributor and black American, shared a Twitter hashtag, #WedontTalkLikeThat.

The division between those who found her feigning ebonics and those who rationalized her entitlement, as a Latina, to effect the sounds of African-American Vernacular English, which is the name given to legitimize it as a language, wasn’t along racial lines, but fandom lines. Those who liked AOC found it acceptable, if not wonderful. Those who didn’t, didn’t.

For her part, AOC launched into a series of twits in her own defense, explaining that she wasn’t putting on verbal blackface, but “code-switching.”

Code switching is a tool communities learn when they’re told their voice, appearance, & mannerisms are “unprofessional.”

The more official definition of code switching is when a multilingual speaker alternates between two or more languages. Is using the word “ain’t” rather than “is not” code switching? What about the twang in pronunciation of certain words to give it that ghetto sound when uttered by someone who grew up in the lovely Westchester County neighborhood of Yorktown and went to college at Boston University?

John McWhorter, a Columbia professor of linguistics, goes full intellectual in defense of AOC’s going ghetto.

Ocasio-Cortez was engaging in what linguists call code-switching. Few find code-switching surprising when Latinos do it between English and Spanish, alternating between the two languages within a single conversation or even sentence. The concept perhaps seems less familiar when done between dialects of the same language, but this, too, is extremely common. For example, what an unfortunate number of Americans think of as black people slipping into “errors” when they speak is, in the scientific sense, people code-switching between standard and Black English, the latter of which is an alternative, and not degraded, form of English.

Key to McWhorter’s rationalization is his final sentence, its final phrase. It’s not a “degraded” form of English, but merely an alternative. There’s standard English and “Black English.” McWhorter comes out and says it, that there is an “unfortunate” number of American’s who see Black English as “errors.” Ain’t that the truth.

It became fashionable in education in the 1970s to reinvent Black English, described as the language of the descendants of slaves, into its own legitimate language. In the 1990s, there was a push to adopt it for pedagogical purposes in order to bridge a gap in performance.

That all changed with the ‘Ebonics’ controversy of December 1996 when the Oakland (CA) School Board recognized it as the ‘primary’ language of its majority African American students and resolved to take it into account in teaching them standard or academic English.

This proved disastrous. While it served to boost the grades of Ebonic-speaking students, it left them at an extreme disadvantage in higher education and the job market. It’s not that people who came by it naturally didn’t use it, but that they weren’t similarly taught to use standard English.

To take McWhorter’s rationalization seriously, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t be as entitled to weave back and forth from AAVE to standard English, just as they might from French to English or Spanish to English. If it’s a stand-alone language, then anyone capable of speaking it can do so.

Ocasio-Cortez’s critics seem to assume that since she is not black, her use of Black English must be some kind of act. This, however, is based on a major misreading of the linguistic reality of Latinos in America’s big cities. Since the 1950s, long-term and intense contact between black and Latino people in urban neighborhoods has created a large overlap between Black English and, for example, “Nuyorican” English, the dialect of New York’s Puerto Rican community. To a considerable extent, Latinos now speak “Ebonics” just as black people do, using the same slang and constructions, code-switching between it and standard English (and Spanish!) in the same ways.

Apparently, the legitimacy of an ebonics-speaking person is limited not by their ability to utter the words or affect the twang, but by their marginalized ethnicity. McWhorter isn’t wrong about the reality of Hispanics in “America’s big cities,” by which he means the ghettos like New York City’s Harlem, Fort Washington and South Bronx, although ghettos is no longer a tolerable word because the description is too accurate.

Except AOC didn’t live on 168th Street and St. Nicholas. She may be Latina by ethnicity, but not by “lived experience.” Having spent a legal career speaking to people who lived in those neighborhoods, I can confirm the basic concept, even if McWhorter’s mistaken about it being Puerto Ricans, who largely moved out and were replaced by Dominicans, but the Dominicans who adopted the language of the streets, flowing from Spanglish to Ebonics.

It made for some problematic Title III wire transcripts, as black jurors never came to appreciate and accept the use of a certain n-word by Hispanics. White jurors hated it even worse. Then there was the problem of jurors having no clue what witnesses were saying, as there were no AAVE interpreters to translate. If the witness testified in Mandarin, there would be an interpreter, because Mandarin is a foreign language in the United States. Ebonics is not.

But none of this factors into the dichotomy of excuses used to rationalize the acceptable pandering of the left, because there are no principles that don’t fall to the side when they produce the wrong outcome.

Public language in America is becoming less formal practically by the week, and Black English is increasingly a lingua franca among American youth. In our era, as politicians are minted whose only memories of the 20th century were formed as small children, we will hear ever more use of Black English in public, with its warm, demotic flavor.

Putting aside the irony of McWhorter using “lingua franca,” a phrase that is rarely heard above 125th Street, you can’t have it both ways. If it’s a legit language, then anyone can speak it. If there’s a pigment requirement, or at least a vowel at the end of a name, then it’s not a language. And if we close our eyes really tight, it still doesn’t make Hillary look like Angela Davis. Are politicians multilingual or pandering? Can anyone speak that way, including the full panoply of word choices employed uptown, or just the folks given special permission?

46 thoughts on “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Code-Switching?

  1. Richard Kopf


    Everything old is new again.

    “My Fair Lady: ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain.'”

  2. wilbur

    How’d that work out for Hillary?

    I’ll spare you the anecdotes. Suffice it to say my friends and co-workers were less than impressed.

  3. Skink

    “Are politicians multilingual or pandering? Can anyone speak that way, including the full panoply of word choices employed uptown, or just the folks given special permission?”

    It’s not your fault, but the entitlement to use of dialect created by marginalized and disenfranchised citizens isn’t the issue.* “Blackface,” to the folks doing the screaming on that front, is bad because it takes something from their heritage, whatever that may be. The experts come out, extolling the pros or cons of the behavior. Midget brains light campfires in their respective, “that’s bad” or “leave her alone camps.” They will do as they always do.

    But what about her pathology? What kind of thinking led this “leader” to conclude this was going to work to her advantage? It was sure to piss-off black people, white people, latin people. It was bound to get the campfire out-of-control with all but those she already secured to her way of thinking. Her gain was nothing, so why?

    The people of her district should ask those questions. They won’t.

    *I wrote it, but I’ll be damned if I know how.

    1. SHG Post author

      From the post=election polls, AOC wasn’t the candidate of the marginalized residents of her district, but of the hipsters she rallied to her cause in the primry, while her opponent foolishly took for granted that he would win as the party favorite. As long as she’s a hero, she can do anything.

      1. B. McLeod

        Antifas/SJWs trying to mix it up with real gangstas from the hood would be better than Allosaur vs. T-Rex. But I would not expect AOC’s banner to stay up for long.

        1. SHG Post author

          As it happens, I am personally acquainted with a good number of people who reside in neighborhoods where vernacular predominates, and few of them agree with AOC that climate change is their most important issue. They do, however, believe that drug legalization is a great cause.

      2. Catherine P Clements

        I’m hearing people from her district already complaining about her. that they thought she would have been their champion, but seems to have forgotten about them already. So perhaps she’s trying to get back in their good graces.

  4. Elpey P.

    “you can’t have it both ways”

    But is McWhorter trying to, or is he being lumped in with those who do? He’s a frequent critic of identity politics, and a linguist who came by his arguments on this topic long before AOC.

      1. Dan T.

        His point that public speaking is becoming less formal is a long-time thesis of his, presented at the greatest length in his book “Doing Our Own Thing”, which states that formality went out of style around 1965.

  5. John Haberstroh

    There’s never been anything wrong with code-switching. What’s wrong and sad is having to justify it on racial/’lived experience’ grounds.

      1. John Haberstroh

        It was barely code switching anyway, she was just imitating the speaking style of black preachers. We could criticize her mediocre effort, I suppose, but that also misses the point, which should be to push back against silly attacks on code switching, and against silly ‘justifications’ like McWhorter’s. One way to push back is to employ a music analogy and ask if we really would’ve wanted to stop Ray Charles from singing country or Paul McCartney from singing rhythm and blues. Neither genius possessed the lived experience of the marginalized groups whose musical style and practices he was imitating.

        1. LocoYokel

          I’m pretty sure that Paul would be accused of cultural appropriation and screamed off the stage if he was starting out today. Ray can do what he wants, he’s part of the right group to do whatever he wants.

          1. SHG Post author

            Paul was the cute Beatle, and cute compensates for a lot. Would Ebony and Ivory have been a hit today? Who knows?

  6. Catherine P Clements

    she claimed that she was proud to be a bartender – but she went to a very expensive school for economics – so surely bartending was not her goal in life. And, she clearly aspired to greater things. But then she told them that black people should be ok with folding clothes, preparing food – she never talked about black people as accountants, lawyers, etc. Then, she talked about building power (in her clap back vernacular) – but people in the former group don’t form power – UNLESS they vote as a block – and that is what I wonder about – is she OK with them staying down, as long as they support her? Because many black leaders in the past have been accused of that – never doing anything to lift up the black community. I think she’s the “dark triad” personality, and for me, that’s what most revealing about her speeches – it exposes her true personality. I hope her constituents figure her out quickly.

    1. SHG Post author

      Interesting point, but that would require her to be a conniving panderer, which means she thought this through. Does she deserve that much credit?

      1. LocoYokel

        Did SHE need to think this through or just read from the standard playbook, or perhaps get coached by those with more experience? Would she listen to the voice of experience or does she already know more than everyone who came before?

        1. SHG Post author

          She doesn’t seem particularly receptive to the advice of the Olds, but that too might be a sneaky kid ploy.

          1. Pedantic Grammar Police

            She is listening to someone. Snopes disagrees with the suggestion that she is an actress playing the role of a politician, but they also say this:

            “The “Brains Behind AOC” video correctly states that Ocasio-Cortez was recruited by the Justice Democrats to run for office. However, this fact is presented in the video as if it were an unprecedented act of political malfeasance. In reality, it is quite common for Political Action Committees (PACs) to recruit candidates for office. The Justice Democrats made no attempt to hide this effort and openly discuss their recruitment process on their website and in videos published to their public YouTube page:”

            It’s unlikely that anything she says or does in public is her own idea. This explains why she wavers between intellectual brilliance and garbled nonsense; the nonsense comes out when she encounters a situation not covered by the script.

  7. Daniel Forbes

    Hiya Folks:

    Get a grip, y’all. I watched the clip of AOC at the top, expecting to cringe. But it was one — one! — sentence: “Ain’t nothing wrong,” etc. Just re-watched it be sure. And nope, that was it.
    The rest was someone trying to be as articulate and professional as possible. If a single sentence, if the one use of “ain’t” is gonna damn someone, we’re all well past redemption.

    What’s next, criticizing her for pushing her hair behind her ear since she doesn’t have a good, congressional, de-feminizing hair-helmet?

    Daniel Forbes

    1. SHG Post author

      Two suggestions for your first comment here: First, you’re not talking to “folks,” and “folks” don’t give a fuck whether you exist. Second, everyone else got to watch the vid too. Do they need you to tell them what they see, or are you that flaming asshole who suffers from the narcissistic delusion that the folks depend on you to explain stuff to them because you are the center of their universe?

      Next time (if there is a next time), make your point (which was fine) without being a complete asshole in the process.

  8. Daniel Forbes

    Good morning again:

    First. if memory serves, I have commented here before.

    Where I come from, “Folks” is an attempt to be friendly. Folks are the people I might want to hang out with.

    Third, I mentioned the video at the top since that’s what we’re all talking about. And as I realized what the post was about, I truly did expect some horrible ‘black-face’ nonsense. That what’s there is so minimal, so minor, is my sole point. I believe “tell[ing} them what they see” was merely my attempt to comment on what I saw. Just above, someone writes about AOC’s claim to be a bartender. Well, we all heard that. Does mentioning that brand that commenter as narcissistic too — brand her as a “flaming asshole” — since she mentioned something heard on the video? I don’t get it. If I’m gonna comment on what AOC said, which is what everyone else is doing, I need to mention what she said.

    Fourth: if commenting on your site brands me as narcissistic, why have a comments section at all? If mentioning my expectations as I watched tars me as narcissistic, well….

    Fifth: Why so angry someone disagreed with you? Why all the playground insults? You kiss your mother with that mouth?


    1. SHG Post author

      I trust this was intended as a reply, although you’ve chosen to start a new thread all about you, because unlike everyone else who comments here, you are not constrained by the reply button like insignificant “folks.” As fascinating as your important thoughts may be, and having nothing to do with your disagreement about what the video shows, which isn’t remotely the point, you’re not likely to make friends here. And I would kiss my mother with this mouth if she wasn’t dead. It’s been fun, and you will be missed.

      1. Ron

        It’s perpetually fascinating to see how oblivious narcissists are to their narcissism, and how they can rationalize it even when it’s pointed out to them.

        1. Norahc

          Come to SJ for the thought provoking articles and get provided free entertainment of narcissists being eviscerated. Just don’t touch the donuts!

  9. Steve Brecher

    And in the correction…
    “they weren’t similarly taught use standard English.”
    to use or use of

  10. Black Bellamy

    I code-switch to Eastern European Gangster when I need to motivate people. “You maybe walk faster off the bus, no?” You need to pronounce that last word as ‘nuh’ so they take you seriously. Also, when using EEG always include the ‘maybe’, which actually means very definitely. That way expectations are clear.

      1. losingtrader

        Eastern European / Russian gangster is like this:

        Me: What do you do for a living?
        Reply: I am businessman , don’t ask.
        Me: Really?
        Reply: I sit back and money come to me.

        Oh, and SHG, regarding the post, could you please reformat it into a five-paragraph essay?

  11. grberry

    Yale and Princeton scholars have studied the way non-blacks speak to blacks, and came to the conclusion that “White Liberals Present Themselves as Less Competent in Interactions with African-Americans”. And that is the headline that Yale put on the results of the study. The authors chose the less comprehensibility, but more scholarly, “Self-Presentation in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals”.

    The research started with studying speeches of presidential candidates. “The team found that Democratic candidates used fewer competence-related words in speeches delivered to mostly minority audiences than they did in speeches delivered to mostly white audiences. … “It was really surprising to see that for nearly three decades, Democratic presidential candidates have been engaging in this predicted behavior.” ”

    So AOC is doing what other Democrats do. Whatever is going on here, it isn’t just her.

    (Links omitted per standards, but Yale’s coverage is at a Yale School of Management website and the article is in pre-print for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and available online.)

  12. B. McLeod

    Stereotyping and cultural appropriation are bad, but “code-switching” is like “identity politics,” and so it is (apparently) OK.

  13. BTF

    I found it similarly disingenuous when Obama would slip into a subtle southern baptist minister speech rhythm, having not been from nor ever lived in the south as far as I know.
    Hillary Clinton could more easily justify the cultural appropriation above. But I am not a linguistics expert and think people should not be judged by their skin color, so what do I know?

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