Table of Contents
An accent is defined as a mode of pronunciation distinctive to a specific individual, nation or location. Accents are identified with the locality in which the speakers reside or the ethnicity the speakers are from. Accents are influenced by many factors such as the first language, ethnicity, social status and the locality of a speaker. Accents vary in the quality of pronunciation, voice and the contrast and stress of vowels and consonants. This paper will examine the black sound, discussed by John McWhorter in his essay, Thick of Tongue where he questions, So what exactly is this ‘black sound’ I am insisting exists? What this black sound is and whether the black sound exists. The paper analyzes all aspects of what the black sound is considered to be through a variety of experiences that are expressed by McWhorter, who is a black man but sounds like a white man. The paper examines whether the black sound is a vernacular heritage to Black Americans or whether it is an identification used in the discrimination of Black Americans, whether the black sound is an accent or simply slang and whether the black sound is a dialect of the English language. The paper argues that the black sound McWhorte is insisting is the specific pronunciation of words, intonation rhythms, timbre, vowel coloring, and the general cadences used by Black Americans.
The Black Sound
Black people consider the black sound used to speak Black English to be their vernacular heritage. Black English is said to have started in early 1700 during the counterculture where black Americans were asked to embrace and be proud of their language. McWhorter explains this in his essay when he asserts that “The social boundaries of Black English, which has existed since at least the early 1700s, expanded starting in the late sixties when the counterculture encouraged a new informality and black activists and intellectuals taught black America to be proud of its vernacular heritage” (McWhorter, p2). In contrast to being a vernacular heritage, the black sound is a source of discrimination that is used by both Black Americans and Whites. A black person who speaks like a white person often puts off black people. This is due to the assumption that white people are better than black people and black people are constantly trying to prove the ideology wrong. That is why when a black person lacks the intonations, timbre, and coloring of vowels in his/ her language and rather than having a black sound he/she speaks like a white person there is the general assumption among the black people that one is trying to indicate that their either better than them or they are not proud of their black culture.
Black sound is not different or degradation of Standard English. The black sound is only called black because it is common among Black Americans but it has nothing to do with the genetics of black people. Black sound is simply a dialect of the English language. McWhorter supports this when he states that, “When English came to America, it developed in many directions, of which today’s standard and black varieties are but two.” (McWhorter, p3). When two dialects constantly and randomly change over a long duration of time they end up sounding different and they become more distinct. Hence, the assumption black sound is just a dialect of the English language. Contrary to the black sound being a dialect is the fact that it is very hard for a white person to speak Black English even having lived in a black neighborhood. One of the major influences to a dialect is the locality one lives in therefore, if the black sound was a dialect white people should be influenced by the dialect but instead the possibilities for a black person to sound like a white person are numerous compared to a white person having a black sound.
Being able to recognize black sound does not necessarily mean that a person is racist. Black sound is something, which happens subconsciously to black people, but it is a stamp of authenticity for Black Americans. The black sound gives a warm sense of belonging among black people and being a white person who can recognize the black sound even without seeing a face is not an indication that one is racist. McWhorter states that “Almost all black people code-switch between standard and Black (not Southern) English to varying degrees, and even the most educated black people typically talk with vowel colorings and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” (McWhorter, p3). Disputing the idea that being able to recognize a black sound is not racist is the fact that people have used the same recognition of the black sound to classify the person at the end of a call or in a radio show. McWhorter gives examples of situations in radio interviews where he has been asked to identify himself as a black person because he sounds like a white person. Views and contributions in a radio station should not be categorized on ethnic basis this is because ideologies among people are different, even if they share the same ethnic background.
Black Americans are famous for the use of slang but the black sound is not specifically the use of slang. This is because even while speaking Standard English, for example, while reading a passage, you can still recognize the black sound. McWhorter posits that “I am not referring to black slang. Plenty of black people use little street slang and yet still have a black sound.” (McWhorter, p2). Black sound is an accent, which just like any other language differs from Standard English in terms of intonation, stresses in vowels and consonants and timbre. Therefore, the black sound is an accent that has its own specific timbre, intonations and specific stresses on consonants and vowels. Disagreeing with this ideology is the fact that slang has intensive influences on how people speak. Bearing in mind that Black Americans are famous for the use of slang is an indication that the use of slang has greatly affected the way they speak and has been incorporated in their speech. That is why even while speaking Standard English the same effect is heard. From the intensive use of slang by Black American, that’s why a word like ‘mention’ will sound like ‘mintion’.
This paper has analyzed different principles that McWhorter discusses in his essay, Thick of Tongue to try and answer his question, So what exactly is this ‘black sound’ I am insisting exists? From the ideas discussed in this paper, it is evident that the black sound exists. The definition of the black sound is highly controversial because some prefer to refer to it as an accent or dialect of the Standard English language that is used by Black Americans. Just like any accents where one can tell the race, ethnicity or location of a speaker, the black sound is identified with Black Americans. But from arguments in this paper, it is evident that the black sound could be a discrimination tool among Black Americans and whites as well. Blacks will discriminate another black person because they simply sound white and the black sound is also used to classify people in instances that are not necessary at all like in radio shows. This paper identified that the most common argument is that the black sound is the specific pronunciation of words, intonation rhythms, timbre, vowel coloring, and the general cadences used by Black Americans.
- McWhorter, John. Thick of Tongue: Future of Language: So What Exactly is this “Black Sound” I am Insisting Exists? 2016.