Code Switching: A Question of Context

WELL OF COURSE, there will be much more about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s foot-in-mouth regarding our president’s eloquence and “articulateness” and I’ll probably be adding my two cents to the discussion since this is one of those rich areas of discourse: no pun intended. According to a new book, Game Change, Reid encouraged then- Senator Obama’s run for president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Journalist, Kurt Anderson had this up on the Studio 360 blog earlier today — an old piece about the act of “code switching” — altering one’s speech and demeanor depending on context, audience and/or situation featuring U.C. Berkeley linguist, John McWhorter. Speech pattern, diction, dialect are code. We tend to use all of this information to measure all sorts of actions: from intent to authenticity. If said ‘speaker’ doesn’t fit into the box of expectation it tends to flummox those on the receiving end. Since this whole brouhaha, I’ve been thinking about the old Bill Cosby routine where he asks: “Are you speaking some sort of Modren”? If Sen. Reid, had only stopped with the “negro dialect” but adding the “light-skinned” observation made it all the more potent and thus explosive. Reid stepped onto a minefield. Not to say that this isn’t a discussion or topic that African-Americans would find foreign — in fact its something that was discussed for much of the lead-up to the election. Context alters everything. Even intentions.

photo: obama, reid, pelosi

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