Turn on your car radio and you may hear “Fancy” by popular rap artist Iggy Azalea. Her song drips of catchy hip-hop phrases, and evokes a style that was awarded “Billboard’s Song of the Summer.”
If you Google the artist, you’ll learn that the rapper is White and originally from Australia.
Many were also surprised to learn rapper Machine Gun Kelly is also not Black.
They “sound” Black, but are not of African-American descent. Are they “talking Black”? Imitating Black speech? Or is there even such a thing as “talking Black”?
Indianapolis resident Andrew Locke, who is African-American, believes there is no such thing as talking Black – English is English.
“So because I speak the right way, I’m ‘talking White?’ Why is slang or chopped up speech equated to ‘talking Black?’” he asked.
Indy resident Renee Williams understands Locke’s point, but maintains there is a distinction.
“We do sound different. So when a non-Black person says something ridiculous like ‘what up homie’ they are clearly referring to a type of language and phrases that originated in Black culture,” Williams said.
John Baugh, Margaret Bush Wilson professor of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., said the real answer lies in one’s history, not race.
“Many African-Americans, especially if they are descendants of slaves, have distinct linguistic characteristics that are identifiable by what we linguists call ‘African-American vernacular English,’” said Baugh.
He uses the example of President Barack Obama. He is Black, but not a slave-descendant, therefore his linguistic experience growing up in Hawaii is different from someone who traces their ancestors to Georgia sharecroppers.
“It’s not about race, it’s about your linguistic heritage,” he reiterated.
Baugh said the way Blacks speak is unique to their experience.
Blacks who came to the U.S. on their own will, including Black people from the Caribbean, Brazil or Nigeria, have a different language legacy than those whose ancestors were enslaved.
“Of all of the voluntary immigrant groups, they came with others who spoke their native language,” said Baugh. “Slave traders separated slaves by language whenever possible to break down communication among them so they wouldn’t engage in uprising during the Atlantic crossing.”
As a result of this, slaves are the sole group that came to the U.S. without their native tongue intact.
Once in America, Baugh said slaves were denied access to schools, therefore the language forms learned and used on plantations were never really modified.
Even as time passed, Blacks primarily lived amongst themselves in segregated neighborhoods further preserving the use of certain types of language.
“As long as you have racial segregation you’re going to still have distinctive patterns,” said Baugh.
Though Baugh is an expert on language and culture, and African-American, he said when talking on the phone, many believe he is white. When talking to Black people he knows well, his style shifts. He said this is quite common.
“Many well-educated African-Americans, especially if they grew up in urban neighborhoods, adopt one style of speaking in their profession and they have another style they use informally,” said Baugh.
He expands on his point using retired Gen. Colin Powell and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as examples.
Both are slave descendants, but neither use those language characteristics. However, if you look at activists Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton, while their grammar may be standard English, their pronunciations are patterned after slave descendants.
On the other side of this coin, there’s the “White person who grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood.” Baugh said people speak like the people they interact with and more importantly those they seek respect from. This may explain why White artists such as Iggy Azalea, Machine Gun Kelly and more famously, White rapper Eminem, come across the airwaves as Black.
Baugh adds that it can be argued that when a White person says phrases clearly common to Blacks, such as “what up, dog?” they may or may not be racist.
He recommends that Blacks ask themselves: is this person a close friend? Did they grow up in the Black community? What’s their motivation?
Stuart Davis, a professor in the Department of Linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington said if you examine race as part of this conversation, it’s unfortunate that Whites can use phrases like “what up, dog” and not be criticized, but a Black person is criticized for “speaking Black” or improper English.
Davis said one should note that what we know of as Standard English is just another dialect and what is considered “correct” is also determined by history and economics.
“If you take a look at the U.S., southern dialect is looked down upon. Why? Well, if the South had won the Civil War, southern English would have been equated with standard English and northern accents would have been looked down upon,” said Davis. “This reflects the power structure of society.”
Language is not only about one’s history or accommodating your circumstances, language is about one’s class.
Those who are considered upper class sound different than the working or poor class. Baugh said this remains true regardless of race.
When discussing speech, one must take into account one’s accent. He uses the example of Chicago.
There, the city is divided. There are areas that are predominantly Black and others with very few Blacks. In each area, you’ll find distinct accents.
“One of the things in Chicago is the ‘aah’ sound. So they’ll say Chi-caah-go. You’ll find that pronunciation among white Chicagoans, but not among Black Chicagoans,” said Davis. “They live in the same city, they all root for the Bears, they are largely Democratic, but you’re not going to hear that from an African-American.”
When looking at accents more broadly, someone from Boston sounds different from someone living in New Orleans. Davis said there is a distinct southern Black accent and a Northern Black accent. He maintains that there are features common among Blacks that are not shared by whites, no matter where you live.
One should also note that unlike other countries, the U.S. does not have an official language.