Black vocal cadence: when our tone can mean life or death

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (do I need to say there have been many more?) has prompted some important discussion about the way we view these young men in public spaces and how we interpret the way they speak. John McWhorter recently examined the Black male vocal cadence in an article at The Root, in a piece titled, “Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?”

He writes,

“Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable— the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.”

And I would add to this: the stereotypes of Black women being thought of as confrontational, aggressive, loud, and angry. I experienced this directly during my undergraduate degree on Long Island. I was on a Peer Counselor team for a few of the summers. PCs were in charge of the incoming students during their 3-day overnight orientation for the school. It was the first time I was ever put on a staff that was roughly half Black and half White. The first year I did the job, it didn’t take very long for racial tensions to begin. The White women were complaining that the Black team members were too loud and aggressive during the staff meetings and they found it intimidating. The Black women responded with frustration and resistance as they were “just talking how they normally do and didn’t mean anything personal by it.” But others were interpreting it differently and taking offense. Despite the tensions, the upper management did a fairly decent job forcing us to talk this out openly and come to level of understanding that allowed us to work together and forge friendship with each other for the rest of the summer. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about tone, communication signals, and assumption.

McWhorter writes,

“However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.”

As someone who teaches accents, dialects, and EFL pronunciation, I try to engage my students and clients with this idea of intercultural misinterpretation. I talk about the prejudice of our listening and try to make explicit how our communication is heavy with cultural signals. To an American, Mandarin speakers can sound angry, British people sound posh, Eastern European speakers can sound serious. We make judgements based on people’s vocal tone all the time. I liken our use of language and tone as a type of computer program or a genre of music. When another person hits the notes or code in a different way, we misinterpret the emotional state, personality and/or intentions of the listener. If you add in a healthy dose of privilege, hegemony, and Standard Language Ideology, now you have a sense that an interpretation of how someone speaks is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. Suddenly there is an authority, whether it is the justice system, teachers, businesses, or the media.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to share and teach this idea to those from a dominant White culture, so they can critically reflect a bit more about language, tone, and identity instead of interpreting things through their own privileged experience and lens.

When we work with the voices of actors of color or those from a pluralistic background, we must bear all of this in mind as educators. Hegemony and the privilege of our own interpretation do not stop at the door of our classrooms and rehearsal studios. And in trying to find our students’ “true” voices, we must acknowledge that this navigation may be complicated given the socio-political dynamics between classmates and faculty. And we must acknowledge that we may not always like what their “true” voice sounds like and are potentially prone to misinterpret it culturally.

Lastly, sometimes People of Color ARE actually angry. And that is totally okay too. Considering the severe inequity in our country, there is a lot to be upset about. McWhorter points out that “for a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it.”

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“…It’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard.”

In a recent Guardian article, Edward Klemp, Artistic Director of RADA and actress Imogene Stubbs bemoan excessive mumbling and unintelligibility in theatre and films like the recent “The Great Gatsby.”

These two thespians, along with the article author, cited numerous reasons for this: directors and producers who believe that “mumbling is more truthful,” actors being encouraged to improvise scripts, decreasing opportunities for repertory work, and typecasting:

“The naturalistic, mumbling acting style tends to go with people who are playing something closer to their obvious self … People who are playing against their obvious self tend to embrace the acting a bit more,” added Stubbs.

Stubbs goes on to criticize actors who are afraid of sounding “like an old-fashioned actor.” I fundamentally agree with all of these industry factors and I certainly want all of my students or clients to be heard and understood by their audiences. It was the final reason given that prompted a number of reflective questions for me.

Part of the problem also lies in the education system. Teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship with language, let alone a sense of how to shape it, Kemp said. There is no longer a guarantee that even someone with an English degree from a leading university could handle this stuff, he added.

I am interested in why “teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship to language.” Of course, an “education system” is made up of complex relationships between teachers, students, law, and curriculum, so I am not trying to properly delve into this in a few words in a blog post. Is it possible, though, that this is partly because that as the UK student demographics grow increasingly more multilingual and multicultural, educational “language” is continuing to stay, for the most part, from canons of White males? And is it possible that many students these days may have little motivation for or inspiration from such indigenous cultural experiences written/created by a group that has systematically disempowered them? Some of British drama students I’ve spoken to have alluded to the idea that they don’t feel entitled to play certain characters from specific period plays and/or that if they do, they must be spoken in a ‘standard’ accent. Could another reason for mumbling be that actors are not being sufficiently trained in or feel empowered within their own accent, and are therefore struggling with the articulation of the text in performance?

walterwaswaitingworryingandwatching

Ok, so I know things like this are up on Youtube for humorous purposes, but I think this is a great example of what happens to a language when you subtract prosody and intonation. English speakers will have a difficult time understanding a speaker if they do not have the contextual clues that speech rhythm and melody offer.
English teachers often focus on consonant and vowel pronunciation changes. English learners tend to focus on this as well as it seems more straightforward to learn. You can see that this is simply just part of the picture when it comes to being understood. Without the music and beat of a language, meaning is quickly lost.

“Turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking”

In his article, “Why don’t the French speak English” in the Daily Beast, David Sessions uses anecdotal evidence of recent French faux paux (yeah I went there) in relation to English and political correspondence and highlights France’s poor showing in the TOEFL, English First speaking test, and the “European Survey on Language Competences.”

When speculating about why this might be the case, he quote’s Pamela Druckerman’s French-parenting guide Bringing Up Bébé,

“Even at home, we tend to teach children to be quiet, discreet, and not make too much noise,” Fleurot told me. “Perfect work is called sans faute in French, which is a negative way to go about it. And the expression, ‘turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking’ reflects the idea that you shouldn’t speak unless you are really sure about what you are going to say. There are many small things like these that tend to show that our culture is less outgoing than, say, American culture, where kids are encouraged to speak out.”

In my experience, many English teachers don’t often realize the intricate relationship of one’s culture and the readiness, willingness, or sureness with which one speaks even in their 1st language. These cultural differences should be discussed and addressed and the learner should feel that he or she is making a choice to push against certain beliefs in order to progress in a different language that has different cultural implications. Foisting it upon them while making assumptions that non-Native English speakers have the same relationship to language as we do will not help.

Sessions also quotes a linguist to raise cultural judgments about pronunciation changes in English.

“Pronouncing English seems very hard to French students and very ‘funny,’” said Jean-Philippe Schmitt, a French professor at New York University and the founder of JP Linguistics. “For example, the th- sound seems in French like a speech impediment or lisp. French people really have to be willing to step out of their comfort zone to pronounce it.”

It amazes me how sensitive we are to certain sounds and how it can really make us feel something without even realizing it. If you are teaching a French learner of English the th sound and they believe that this makes them sound deficient, then your job as their pronunciation teacher will be all the more challenging. As Schmitt says, we all have to step out of our comfort zone to make such pronunciation changes laden with cultural judgments.

There are a few grammar forms in Korean such as 나요(nah-yo) where they are considered softer and are used mostly by women as opposed to men. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it makes me feel to say this grammar form. I start to feel a tightness in my chest and my face gets hot. As a non-classically feminine woman, it is incredibly difficult for me to use this verb form. But sometimes, in situations in Korea, it’s necessary for me to use it in order get what I want. Out of one’s comfort zone, indeed.