Axcents and Words

This post isn’t as timely as it should be.  Part of this is because I wasn’t sure whether I should publish it at all and part of it is because I knew I had to choose my words carefully to avoid any misunderstanding. That incidentally relates to what I have to say.

While following the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case on Twitter, one of the more popular topics was his friend Rachel Jeantel and the way she spoke. Judging from the commentators’ Twitter profile pictures, this came from users of several races, but more often from black users. It got to the point where others suggested in blogs that the criticism from the black community was a form of self-loathing. Everyone has something to say about Rachel Jeantel and I’m sick of the analysis of her every move. As a white person, I don’t need Russell Simmons retweeting “What White People Don’t Understand About Rachel Jeantel” every hour to tell me that I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be another race. However, as someone who’s interested in language and dialects, I do think I can fairly examine the criticism of her speech.

Rachel Jeantel
Rachel Jeantel is not the one who’s on trial, in case you forgot.

One of them was her pronunciation of “asked” as “axed”. That stood out to me because I think it’s been unfairly racialized. The truth is, lots of people say “axed”. People from the outer boroughs of New York say “axed”. People from Jersey say “axed”. Pauly D from “Jersey Shore”, who’s originally from Rhode Island but sounds like he’s from Boston, says “axed”. I will admit that outside the Mid-Atlantic/Southern New England region, I’ve heard “axed” mostly used by African-Americans. I don’t why that is, but “axed” isn’t exclusive to one race. The other issue I took with “axed” is that technically, it is grammatically correct. Everyone likes to point out Jeantel’s socioeconomic and educational status for her lack of eloquence, but when you really listen to her words, she’s not as grammatically inept as she is perceived to be. She’s not even difficult to understand. She just happens to have a slight lisp and what should be called an accent.

My theory is that people with more education and/or of a higher socioeconomic status sound rather bland because of assimilation. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and in order to achieve a higher socioeconomic status, one had to drop his native culture. That would include an accent.  People of upper classes had Anglo-Saxon roots, which meant they were more established in the country. That could be why British accents sound posh to Americans. That also could be why thicker Americans accents are associated with lower socioeconomic statuses. It sounds terrible, but it’s true. (Watch any movie with scientists in it. I’ll bet that not one of them sounds, say, Cajun.) However, as elocution lessons became less necessary over the generations, accents were passed down without interference. Jeantel is a multilingual child of Haitian immigrants. She shouldn’t be expected to sound like a national news anchor.

It is also true that some grammatical errors can be part of a dialect. As a Yankee living in the South, it used to annoy me that Southerners often say “waiting on” instead of “waiting for”. One is waiting on someone in the context of providing service. “Waiting for” describes expecting the presence of another person, yet “waiting on” is the one I usually hear in this context. Then at some point I remembered an incident from when I was in college. We were watching “Seinfeld” when a friend pointed out that people from New York City say “waiting on line” instead of “waiting in line”. I am from Poughkeepsie, which is two hours upstate from the city. Therefore, it makes sense that I use both forms interchangeably. I’m no better than those who “wait on” people.

On the flip side of this issue, there’s Paula Deen’s appearance on the “Today” show. In her trademark thick Southern accent, she memorably ended her “apology” for her racist behavior with “I is what I is.” That’s a lot different from Rachel Jeantel’s incorrect use of “at”(as it “where he’s at”). “I is what I is” is clearly intentional. That kind of grammar corruption is part of Paula Deen’s image as an ordinary, no-frills Southern woman. She could have taken elocution lessons before appearing on television, as many TV personalities do, but that would have hurt her brand. She was one of the common folk and that made her appealing. Now that everyone knows she not only holds herself above certain people, but an entire race at that,  it makes her the object of ridicule on “The Soup”.

I is what I is on the Soup
Notice how The Soup misspells “casserole”.

In the U.S., we don’t like to admit to class differences, but I think our attitudes toward diction and grammar reflect what is unsaid. Rachel Jeantel was scrutinized as a witness partly because she didn’t sound intelligent enough, but good grammar isn’t always a good thing either. I remember when Madonna was criticized for saying “whom” during an interview. Bloggers asked, “Who does she think she is?” (Her earlier adoption of a vaguely British accent probably didn’t help.) Thus, Paula Deen made an obvious grammatical error to pander to the public. We all walk the line between sounding uneducated and sounding elitist, although for African-Americans, this can translate into a matter of “not sounding black enough”. Were Jeantel to speak the Queen’s English, she still would have been criticized, though maybe not as much. But I’m not going to venture any further into that issue. Or, as I would say if I were speaking in conversation, I won’t try to go there.

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