Words Matter: A Brief History on Code Switching and Language

Jun 30, 2020

If you want to reach your audience, is it important to speak their language?

At some point, you’ve likely asked a friend to “spill the tea” after a date, lovingly referred to pizza as “bae,” or GIFed a “yas” when your boss asked if you wanted to clock out early. And while you may be super familiar with these phrases, you’re probably not familiar with where they come from. While widely used by people of all races, a lot of pop culture sayings originate from Black Vernacular English (BVE).

A quick history/sociology lesson:

Black Vernacular English (BVE), also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), is derived from African dialects as well as Caribbean Creole English varieties. Enslaved people developed their own version of English in order to promote identity, and to communicate without intrusion from enslavers.

And now today:

In the past few years, many phrases from BVE have entered the public lexicon. With the proliferation of memes and reaction GIFS, they’ve circulated and spread rapidly, often with little knowledge from the user about the history. Think of such commonly used phrases, like “on fleek,” “lit” or “woke.” Many would simply call these Twitter lingo, or social media speak. "On fleek" was created by Kayla Newman AKA Peaches Monroe in a vine. When the phrase went viral, brands were quick to use it in messaging and campagins, but Newman didn't see a dime. Finally, when Fenty Beauty released a new eyebrow product, they reached out to Newman for an endorsement. People celebrated her finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Aside from not being celebrated for their contributions to popular language, many Black people actually face criticism for using BVE. Most Standard English speakers, “think that AAVE is just a badly spoken version of their language, marred by a lot of ignorant mistakes in grammar and pronunciation.” Black people who use BVE can be judged as uneducated. In job settings, schools, or even interpersonal relationships, such conclusions can lead to biased decisions, and Black people being passed over for opportunities.

However, when white and non-Black people use BVE, they don’t grapple with the same conflict. In fact, these people can often benefit from the use, and be seen as hip, culturally relevant, or cool. They can use the language without dealing with the oppression.

This reality leads many Black people to code-switch. Code-switching, “occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties.” Therefore, many Black people code-switch between Standard English and BVE. Anisha Phillips with Feminuity writes, “The end result is that Black people regularly have to self-police their use of BVE in order to survive, while non-Black people can toggle back and forth freely without having to worry about the social or economic consequences.”

Speak Wisely

It makes sense that such widely used language shows up in marketing campaigns as well. Advertisers seek to incorporate current trends, and popular phrases. And it’s no secret that the Black community leads cultural expressions. But for you to engage with such language appropriately and effectively, it requires some intention on your part.

Here’s how you can get started:

1. Diversify Your Team

Real change starts from the inside out. Look at your internal decision makers — is it a representative group? Having a team composed of a variety of backgrounds and influences means you benefit from a wide range of perspectives.

2. Understand What You’re Saying

If you’re going to use a phrase from BVE in your messaging, be sure to grasp its meaning, as well as the history. By doing some research, it can help avoid using a term incorrectly (like using “extra” to describe something “basic”). You’ll also be informed about the historical context of a phrase, and be able to make any necessary adjustments.

3. Go Beyond Words

Lifting language from a culture is uncool if you aren’t incorporating other elements, or acknowledgement. Do you use BVE, but don’t use Black voices, or Black models in your ads? Be sure to engage with Black culture in a meaningful way, that also serves that community.

As experts in audio, we appreciate the value of sound. And yes, sound can be birds chirping or car engines revving, but it also regularly involves language. Words have power, history, and importance. As you continue to create messaging and movements, we encourage you to understand the strength of language, and how you can use it to be a better, more informed marketer and ally.

If you’re interested in learning more about code switching, here are some excellent resources.

The Cost of Code Switching with Chandra Arthur What Is Code Switching? Huff Post Everyday Struggle: Switching Codes for Survival with Harold Wallace III

And for more on resonating with your audience, visit SoundCheck.

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