Dawg, You Killin’ It: The Death of Standard English

Dawg, You Killin’ It: The Death of Standard English


This week while channel surfing I stopped at the VH1 reality show TI and Tiny: The Family Hustle starring actor, producer and recording artist Clifford “Tip” Harris, better known as TI and his wife, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle-Harris formerly of the 90s teen R&B group Xscape.

It chronicles the exploits of the two trying to raise their blended family which include the six children they have together and from previous relationships:  3-year old Major Philant Harris, 6-year old Clifford “King” Joseph Harris III, 11-year old Domani Uriah, 10–year old Messiah Ya’Majesty,  10-year Deyjia Imani and 15-year old Zonnie Zebo.

TI comes off as a Hip Hop Bill Cosby – and he and his wife seem to have good values and the excellent work ethic. They are truly “hustlers” and don’t seem complacent with what they have, always working towards improving their lives.  They are trying to raise their kids to appreciate their blessings and be good citizens.

But, my ears perked up when I noticed the children all speaking in slang vernacular.  Still, that’s fine in comfortable family settings, so long as the kids have command of standard English and grammar in school.

I wasn’t so sure, but the two could certainly afford to purchase tutors for their children if they didn’t have that command yet.  But then again, if the purpose of mastering the English language and doing well in school is to get a good paying and satisfying job, do wealthy kids of rappers have to work that hard? Or will they fall back on sports, rapping or the entertainment field and use their parents’ access and connections, bypassing the rules that apply to regular people?

The rest of us don’t have the same option.

When I immigrated to the United States at 3-1/2 years old, I spoke four different languages. However, my native West African parents made it a point to only speak English to me in our home, because they wanted to make sure I learned English well. They knew it was important for me to have command of the American language. Sadly, within a year of going to school in America, I lost my understanding of all but one of those other languages. I wish I could get them back.

In any event, as I grew up in a lower-middle-income class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I picked up some of the slang and vernacular that was spoken by the all-Black and Hispanic residents who lived there.

In school, however, I was a whiz in my English and reading classes. I also was very comfortable understanding Krio, the pigeon English my parents spoke to themselves. Krio is a derivative and mix of English and indigenous African languages used by many throughout West Africa.

When I grew up, every so often in the professional setting I found myself mixing up tenses or letting some idiom or urban vernacular slip in my speech. No big deal, really.

Many educators, cultural anthropologists, social workers and linguists have been working for years to tear down the stigma among urban youth that speaking properly is synonymous with being White.

Slang is not unique to Blacks, of course. Southerners have terms that are not part of standard English but very much part of the Southern culture and vernacular of that region.  Children of immigrant parents also use words that are a mix of English and their native languages, such as Spanglish.

Similarly, among the youth culture of the general population, the use of social media, such as Twitter, de-emphasize the importance of writing in full sentences. There have been dozens of articles written about the decay and deterioration of the written word.  Educators are concerned that children grow not knowing how to write proper English.

Indeed, it is becoming harder and harder to decry the infusion of slang in our main culture, because it has become so much a part of our daily existence, even more so than before.

Youth, subculture and hip-hop vernacular is so popular that, throughout the years, it has permeated popular culture.

Many average middle Americans find themselves using terms that originated as vernacular or slang: terms like “bling,” “dissed,” “hottie,” “homy,” “from the get-go,” “Mickey D’s,” “put down,” “busted” (arrested), “pimp,” “git-go” and “don’t go there.”

We also commonly shorten words like “though” to “tho” and “through” to “thru” to fit into the 140 characters or less that it takes to send a text or tweet.

The key to living in a blended world of informal and formal speech is to have command of both.  My husband told me of his native Trinidad and Tobago that while all of the children grew up speaking a dialect that included a mix of English and Spanish words, most kids also knew how to write and speak the queen’s English.  That is what we should expect.

Also, what is supposed to happen is that as we age over time, we slowly stop using slang and eventually lose touch with all of the “hip” terms altogether. We learn to use vernacular in social settings only and limit slang to casual contexts.

But, what happens when a child never grows out of slang or learns to differentiate when to use it? Is he or she relegated to suffering the consequences of not having a grip on standard English and to be part of a permanent underclass?  Will the cycle ever be broken, and whose responsibility is it to attempt to break it – the government, private sector, individual families or communities?

Certainly, these days people are outraged over the idea of America becoming more like a socialist country, but are we comfortable having entire segments of the population undereducated? Should we be concerned if those left behind are of one race?

It’s a difficult conundrum that we should work on sooner rather than later because otherwise, we risk relegating whole sectors of people and communities to a permanent underclass.


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