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November 10, 2008 11:25 PM   Subscribe

I am married to a wonderful (black) man who sometimes has terrible grammar (sliding into ebonics). Should I continue to correct him, even though technically, he knows the proper way to say things or should I stop nagging because it will never work?

I am married to the most awesome man, who treats me like gold. He is very intelligent in many ways and went to college, but often his grammar goes into the toilet. This gets on my very last nerve, since 1) I know he knows this bugs the hell out of me 2) He can speak very well when he wants to 3) It makes him sound not as smart as he truly is.

He is from North Carolina, I am from Maine, so this isn't about accents. I am just seriously perturbed when he goes into ebonics and he would argue with me to the death about it being an actual dialect.

My argument is this: Beyond the obvious of it making him sound like an uneducated thug, we live in Maine where it is 96% whites and there are a lot of racist people here, unfortunately. If we are supposed to be the ambassadors of bi-racial couples around here, I would prefer if he not make some kind of statement to them that in any way could be considered negative. I am VERY sensitive to the racism I now experience daily, and I would like to minimize this as much as possible.

His argument is that much like the word "n*gger" and how black people say this to each other, ebonics is a way for black people to have their own way of communicating. They don't talk white because they aren't white. He also points out, correctly, that I married him knowing he uses slang and often retorts, "Okay Teacher" or "okay, judge Judy".

Am I just being a picky nag, who should respect his way of talking, or should I continue to correct him, in hopes that his grammar will improve with *gentle reminders?

* gentle meaning I say, "you what?" or "what did you say?" or "I don't understand that slangy shit"
posted by Grlnxtdr to Human Relations (98 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder if he's doing it to tease you?
posted by Class Goat at 11:28 PM on November 10, 2008


Maybe, but I don't think so. He shows a bit of contempt for the "Queens English" and sometimes makes fun of me by imitating some blue blood asking for her tea. So, yes, teasing me, but an overall disdain for what I would call proper English. Grrrrr.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 11:33 PM on November 10, 2008


Well ... you know you (singular) are not responsible for your spouse and his presentation to the world (slash Maine)? And you know you (plural) are not responsible for representing black people and biracial couples to the world (slash Maine), right? There are all different sorts of all different types of people. Maybe your guy is just Maine's chance to experience a guy who is black and likes black-speak. (Plus if I were one of the few people in Maine who was type X, I might want to be Really Type X in some way.) Advice easier said than done I'm sure.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:38 PM on November 10, 2008


I guess I don't understand why you're trying to impress these racist people. And I'm not being glib. I'm the product of a biracial couple and I know about a lot of the crap my mom went/goes through because she married a black man. Yea, she's Asian, but the point being, if my dad had learned Korean, changed his citizenship to Korea and even changed his name, that wouldn't have significantly lessened anything she went through because the people who said and did some pretty shitty things were hung up that he was black. With people who are racists, there's no sense of "Oh, he's ok because he's not *too* black" and even if they were to amend their opinion of your husband along those lines, it's condescending and still pretty racist because they're comparing him against their own negative assumptions about his race. "He's cool because he talks white," sounds to me like some kind of circular logic that basically boils down to, "Yea, we don't like 'black' things." Now I'm not saying Ebonics is default black culture or suggesting it's anything monolithic like that, but the point is they should be judging him as human being with his own characteristics, not judging him by characteristics first. On the opposite end of the spectrum, that's the same sort of judgement that causes black on black resentment. The name calling of Oreo or "Why you gotta talk white" and "You're so uppity/stuck up." Because really, what does it mean to be black? Who gets to judge that? Why should anyone else judge that? Along those lines, if you two are happy and you know he's a great, intelligent, nice guy who treats you like a queen, and other people can't see that, that's they're problem, not yours, right?

So I guess I'm just saying I don't really see the logic in your reasoning and it seems inherently flawed because the people who have a problem with him being black and you being a biracial couple won't really be swayed just because he talks "proper." The only way to get over that is for them to get to know you two as individuals, not as an archetype of a couple type. You seem to mired in being some kind of bastion or example to be held up as a model of a successful biracial couple, but you're in a relationship for yourselves, not for other people. And fine, you can make a statement if you like, but if you want to make a statement, make it by being happy with each other.
posted by kkokkodalk at 11:41 PM on November 10, 2008 [22 favorites]


I don't think this is about race as much as good old-fashioned relationship issues.

You (I assume) knew that was how he talked when you married him. That is who he is. You want to change him, and he wants to continue being himself. I doubt you are going to force him to change anytime soon.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:44 PM on November 10, 2008 [7 favorites]


Ya know, if he's an awesome husband, who cares what he sounds like. It sounds like you'd benefit from less worrying about how others perceive you ("ambassadors?") and your relationship would benefit from less needling of each other. He's your spouse, not a teenager you're trying to get to stand up straight.
posted by jamaro at 11:46 PM on November 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


If we are supposed to be the ambassadors of bi-racial couples around here, I would prefer if he not make some kind of statement to them that in any way could be considered negative.

Why do you want to be the ambassadors of bi-racial couples to stupid hicks who probably don't approve of your marriage without regard to how either one of you conjugate verbs? I know people like to slag on ebonics because it "makes people sound like uneducated thugs", but if Bill Shakespeare could hear you know he's cringe. This is language we're talking about and it happens on such a sub-conscious level that he probably doesn't know exactly what he's saying until it's out. Someone who grew up talking a certain way will have a hard time completely changing it without sounding stilted and getting really self-conscious about what they're saying. And if you really want someone to sound stupid, just let that feeling seep in for a while and see what you get.

This isn't to say your grammar-naziness is a fatal personality flaw. Clearly it isn't, you've got great friends and a wonderful husband. But it might not kill you (or any of us for that matter) to lighten up a little. And should your husband find himself in a situation where someone starts condescending to him because of the way he talks I'm sure he can find myriad was to provide hilarity for all present.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 11:48 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am just seriously perturbed when he goes into ebonics and he would argue with me to the death about it being an actual dialect.

He's correct. Ebonics ("African American Vernacular English") is a legitimate dialect. So your question about correcting him is inherently flawed. Perhaps you should read up a bit about linguistics and gain a better appreciation for what constitutes correct grammar, it might help you to see your husband's POV.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:49 PM on November 10, 2008 [27 favorites]


It sounds like, to you, "proper English" and "the way that white people in Maine speak" are the same thing. Given that the majority of the people on the planet who speak English are not white people in Maine, why do you think that those two things seem equivalent to you?

I am VERY sensitive to the racism I now experience daily, and I would like to minimize this as much as possible.

Understandably, you'd like to minimize the racism directed towards you. I assume your husband would also like to minimize the racism directed at him. Given that you can only control your own behavior and not the feelings or thoughts of other people, if you were to stop pressuring him to act more like a white person, wouldn't that be a step in the right direction for both of you?
posted by lemuria at 11:52 PM on November 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


I'm from Texas, and I picked up some less-than perfect grammar there...but it is how I learned to speak (informally) with my family, friends, and neighbors. I live in New York now, and have for some time, and most people don't notice my dialect. (They have plenty of their own). I speak Standard American English, if you will, at work and around people I don't know very well.

But when my guard is down, especially around people I love and trust, I slip back into my natural speech pattern. Sometimes I get teased about sounding country, but I've never had a loved one criticize me for it, or try to change me. I'd really resent it if they did.

Sometimes in relationships you have to pick your battles. If he isn't being receptive to this issue, which is something that takes a lot of work to change, btw...and he's a great guy overall who loves you...maybe you should just let it go?
posted by jnaps at 11:57 PM on November 10, 2008


i have to agree with your husband and lemuria. would you correct someone for their accent and distinctly regional words and phrases? and while this isn't as loaded an example as race, as a southern californian who gets mocked a lot when i slide into my coastal/beach/surfer/valley accent, i can empathise. i've been told by a friend of mine that before she knew me well and actually paid attention to what i was saying, she'd dismissed me as a stupid, shallow california girl based purely on my accent. i can speak without it when i need to…but it's a part of me: who i am and where i grew up and i'm proud of that so i don't make that much of an effort to try to hide it.
posted by violetk at 12:05 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


I am VERY sensitive to the racism I now experience daily, and I would like to minimize this as much as possible.

Also, this. Not to be snarky, but really? What about for him who's probably had to experience racism all his life? Yea, it sucks to have your eyes suddenly open to some ugly things about your own race and suddenly being an outcast. Not to get all oppression Olympics, but have you maybe thought that his defensiveness about what he thinks is his culture is and his needling of you is sort of his own passive aggressive way of expressing his frustration of hearing talk from you that he's probably listened to his whole life about what's "wrong" with his culture? And him making fun of the way you speak isn't the proper way to respond either.

This really does sound more like a couple's therapy/relationship counseling type an issue rather than a purely race issue as someone mentioned above. Not to minimize the racism either of you might be encountering, but this needling smacks of defensiveness, passive aggressiveness and all the wrong ways and unfair ways of arguing as a couple.

I'm serious about the being happy with each other thing. My parents aren't the greatest couple, and in fact sometimes downright dreadful. I was never, ever embarrassed by the fact that they were a biracial couple. The reason I never brought any of my friends home was because they fought all the damn time. I didn't want anybody to meet my parents because I didn't want them to see the needling and the arguing and think, "Well, what can you expect from a biracial couple" not "Ew, biracial couple." And a lot of their arguments seemed to come from cultural clashes. In fact I saw a lot of these GI marriages end up not that great because both members underestimated the cultural walls they'd have to climb with each other. And not just about big honking blaring neon sign racism things, even small things that build over time. Like difference in foods or customs and misunderstandings like that that'd end up exploding into really ugly arguments over time based on resentment. It wasn't uncommon for me to hear either of my parents scream during a rather heated argument "Yea, well you're just like the REST of your Koreans/blacks because X."
posted by kkokkodalk at 12:09 AM on November 11, 2008 [9 favorites]


With people who are racists, there's no sense of "Oh, he's ok because he's not *too* black" and even if they were to amend their opinion of your husband along those lines, it's condescending and still pretty racist because they're comparing him against their own negative assumptions about his race.

The idea that using certain slang is incorrect is in itself incorrect. It's an attempt to promote a homogeneous society -- and of course that homogeneity should be "white." School teachers tell us what is "correct" English and what is "incorrect," and they do children a service -- sort of -- by teaching them to speak and write English in a way that is generally accepted by society, and in a way that makes those students appear to be good, upstanding citizens.

I used to get into arguments with my SO about this all the time, since I come from (a) a bi-racial home and (b) a writing and editing background. But the simple fact of the matter is that, by not accepting your husband's way of speech, you are not accepting a part of him and of his culture. You are maybe even being the teensiest bit racist.

The status quo is to speak Standard American English. This is what's expected and accepted. But that doesn't make it right or fair. Your husband probably has to use "proper grammar" in the workplace, but when he's home he should be allowed to be himself.

Here's something to think over: Why does it bother you so much that he talks like he does? And what opinions do you hold about the way black men speak amongst themselves? Do you assume they are uneducated thugs? I imagine you don't, but you do seem to think others will.

Even if your husband could convince the world that he's an okay black man because he talks like he's white, that's not creating social change in any way. It's just playing the white man's game.
posted by brina at 12:18 AM on November 11, 2008 [9 favorites]


The only time it's acceptable to correct someone's grammar or speech is when they ask you to, and for young children. And even then, in moderation.

Source: Lots of time spent with foreigners, geek, freaks, big-city people, small town people, farmers, urbanites, northerners, southerners, easterners, westerners, old people, teenagers, disabled, crazies, weirdos, and eccentrics. Also spent most of my life in half of the above categories.
posted by Ookseer at 12:49 AM on November 11, 2008 [8 favorites]


Am I just being a picky nag

Yes. If you love each other, that's all that matters.
posted by kpmcguire at 12:56 AM on November 11, 2008


It might be helpful to try to imagine the situation reversed... imagine that you two moved to an almost all black community, and your husband wanted you to talk more "black" and hoped that people would feel better about you if you did (let's suspend disbelief for a moment, and imagine that they wouldn't just find you supremely silly). Maybe you would do it sometimes, but you would always feel like this isn't me, and more than anything you would at least want to speak in your own voice at home without being chided about it.

I understand that it must hurt when you suspect people are making assumptions about someone you love that you know aren't true, but you can't change them, and trying to change your husband to make them happier isn't the solution either. Let him decide for himself what he wants to do, and try to ease up the tension at home for his sake, and in your own mind, for yours.
posted by taz at 1:01 AM on November 11, 2008 [8 favorites]


making him sound like an uneducated thug...
His English may make him sound uneducated, but how does it make him sound like a 'thug'? If there are people around you who think you can judge a man's morals based on his use of 'proper English', they're nuts. And nuts aren't worth worrying about.

I am VERY sensitive to the racism I now experience daily...

And so is he, I'm sure. Your husband has been black his whole life and has obviously managed to survive and thrive as a member of a racial minority group. If life has taught him that it's not worth 'correcting' his speech for the benefit of prejudiced whites, maybe he's correct. He has more experience on this issue than you do.

He also points out, correctly, that I married him knowing he uses slang and often retorts, "Okay Teacher" or "okay, judge Judy".
Unless your husband is among the vanishingly small number of men who have Judge Judy fetishes, I'd say this is a VERY BAD SIGN. Your husband is telling you that you are coming across as a condescending, unsexy scold.

gentle meaning I say, "you what?" or "what did you say?" or "I don't understand that slangy shit"
Gentle reminders? Pretending you can't understand what someone is saying when you really can? That's annoying, not a gentle reminder. Calling a form of speech your husband thinks is important and valuable 'shit'? Yeah, that's not a gentle reminder either.

If we are supposed to be the ambassadors of bi-racial couples around here...
No, you're supposed to love your husband and be loved by him, not function as an advertisement for certain political or social ideas.
posted by ShameSpiral at 1:09 AM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


From a linguistic perspective, I agree with your husband and Solon and Thanks who say that Ebonics, or AAVE, is a legitimate dialect. It isn't "terrible grammar" but has its own grammatical conventions, much like your own dialect has. Your dialect might have features his doesn't, but the opposite is also most likely true.
As you point out, there are many benefits associated with speaking the standard dialect. You are often perceived as better educated, more intelligent etc. However, for the individual speaker at least, there are also benefits to keeping one's original dialect. Language is an important part of an individual's identity and sense of self, which could be why your husband doesn't want to change his, even though he knows it annoys you.
posted by Signy at 1:19 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


As an intelligent black man, who has grammar issues yet went to collage, and is married to an intelligent white woman who majored in English, and lives in the deep south, this is my advice:

"Chill, baby."

It's nice that you see yourself as an ambassador and it's very, very touching that you are so very, very sensitive to racism now, but seriously? Screw'em. Being an ambassador gets old quickly and constantly caring about what people who don't like you think of you and yours is emotionally draining. He's been dealing with racism far longer than you have, so maybe you should try learning from him on how to deal with it.

Also, the last damn thing anybody needs is for their spouse to be constantly correcting them. You're supposed to love him for who he is, not fix him. And yes, I'm 95% sure that sometimes he is messing with you 'cause he knows it bothers you. What's the point in being married if you don't poke the other person from time to time.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:23 AM on November 11, 2008 [29 favorites]


Fuck the racist people. Don't make your husband change himself to please them. Some people don't mind doing that, but he clearly doesn't want to. To me, it does sound like you're nagging him and if I were in his position, I would be very irritated.
posted by Nattie at 1:27 AM on November 11, 2008


2) He can speak very well when he wants to
I'm presuming this means when he's at work or in a professional situation. If he uses a dialect with which he's most comfortable when it's the two of you, to my mind that's the same thing as going home and taking off your suit and make-up and not having to stifle your gastric emissions. He's being himself, he's being comfortable and relaxed, and perhaps he over-emphasizes it sometimes to needle you. A lot of wives would gladly put up with some sloppy grammar for a husband who treated them like gold.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:51 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


If we are supposed to be the ambassadors of bi-racial couples around here, I would prefer if he not make some kind of statement to them that in any way could be considered negative.

What, so multi-racial couples are supposed to act all honky and white? Like others have said, AAVE is a legitimate dialect.

I'm from Maine, and yes, we have our share of racist, white-trash scumbags.* That doesn't mean that your husband has to change the way he talks for them. Maine has been a cultural backwater for a long time and people there really need to start experiencing stuff from outside the world of pit parties, Hannaford and cable TV.
That doesn't necessarily mean that they'll like it at first, but you know what? They don't have to.

*There's also smart people in Maine. Their kids keep fleeing the state, though.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:54 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder if he's doing it to tease you?

Maybe, but I don't think so.


Just in case he is doing it to tease you, why not just stop nagging him for 3-4 weeks and see how it goes? He may or may not reduce the amount of slang he uses; if he doesn't you'll have 3-4 weeks of getting used to letting it go which is a win for both of you. I'll bet he does ease up a little bit though, because even though there's nothing wrong with the way he speaks it's probable that he's subconsciously been asserting it in defense of your "gentle" reminders.
posted by zarah at 1:59 AM on November 11, 2008


Oh yes. And don't nag him. His grammar isn't 'going into the toilet', it's his dialect.
You really don't have a leg to stand on there.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:03 AM on November 11, 2008


Nthing those above who've said that this is a relatioship issue. You are trying to make him reject a part of himself to make you more comfortable. Setting aside the fact that it probably wouldn't have the effect you hope for (alleviating the racism you're now subject to), you know it's not fair to ask this of your husband so you're re-framing the issue into terms of correctness in an attempt to take yourself out of the picture, which is dishonest. This is not about ebonics; it's about you and your (dis)comfort. When you're talking about this with your husband, be honest about what's driving your complaints.
posted by jon1270 at 2:06 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Being an ambassador gets old quickly and constantly caring about what people who don't like you think of you and yours is emotionally draining.

This can not be said enough.
posted by SoulOnIce at 2:40 AM on November 11, 2008


I think I understand how you feel. I'm not black, and when I'm in a group of people who are black and they use ebonics, I feel like I'm being left out of the larger conversation or subtext, based on race. Really. Your husband says, "Ebonics is a way for black people to have their own way of communicating" and I agree with this statement, with the addition that it makes me, at least, feel excluded.

That said, you can't change people, and shouldn't try to change your spouse -- he's your lover, not your child. He knows you don't like it. Nagging will not change him. Instead, just love him for who he is: Your awesome, intelligent husband who treats you like gold.
posted by Houstonian at 4:08 AM on November 11, 2008


If he understands when to lose the ebonics, and he's been doing this since before you were married, you don't have a leg to stand on in this fight*. Just another example of how those little things that kind of annoyed you before you got married become the huge overwhelming boulder-in-the-road after year 5 or 15 or 25. That, or you let them go.

When I moved to NYC from the South I was very quickly put in my place about the way I spoke. I had heard jokes about the way I spoke my whole life but once I moved here and started hearing it at work I decided it would behoove me to adapt and lose the slang. No more ya'll, folks, or fixin' to. Let's be very clear and honest here...there is a huge stereotype corelating use of certain dialects (ebonics included) with intelligence, and it seemed a better idea to just accept the (unfair) prejudice was not going to go away and tweak the way I spoke, rather than stand on a soapbox and call, "Ya'll best be accepting me for who I am!"

*is that a southern phrase?

posted by agentwills at 4:37 AM on November 11, 2008


I am wondering under what circumstances he uses more "standard" English and when he uses Ebonics, and if he is trying to make some sort of statement--to you, or those he is speaking to--by which he chooses.

I agree with many of the others that there is a relationship issue underlying your feelings about this, but unlike some of the others, I am a little more sympathetic, I guess. You see, I, too, am in a linguistically "mixed" marriage. I am a liberal and well-spoken woman married to a semi-redneck. He also has two dialects that he can seemingly interchange at will, and I do cringe when he says something particularly hick. This cringe is two-fold. My better self thinks, "Oh, I hope others think he is as wonderful as I do, even if he sounds like a goober right now," and the more selfish part of me thinks, "Oh, I hope people don't think less OF ME because I am married to this guy who is sounding like a goober right now." Then I have to step back from it and say "Fuck 'em if they think they know him or me well enough to pass judgment based on this conversation." I don't think that I have ever missed out on a good friendship due to a person dismissing my husband because of his vernacular. In some ways, I enjoy being part of a partnership that perplexes others (What are they doing together?!); it can work as a filter that sorts the people I'd like to know better from those that don't deserve us.

What Ebonics signifies to you and what it signifies to your husband is clearly quite different, and it sounds like you feel that he is belittling your concerns about this by continuing to speak the way he does. He probably feels belittled by your dismissal of this part of him. I think these topics are worth some discussion, but try to remember that the people worth knowing are those that can appreciate you guys in all your wonderful complexity.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:38 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


should I continue to correct him

You're not correcting him because you're not correct.

Your urges are equivalent to my (heretofore unfulfilled) desire to turn to the next New Yorker who tells me they're waiting awwn loine (or asks me if I am) and ask them why they're still using dialup.
posted by oaf at 4:55 AM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


Another vote for leaving him to talk the way he either talks naturally or wants to talk. You're not going to modify your speech towards "ebonics" (I hate that phrase) and he's not going to modify his towards your weird American accent.

Also, here's a guy who's probably feeling that by moving to Maine and marrying a white woman, he's deserting his culture. The way he talks may be his way of holding on to a part of that culture.

(Admittedly, that last point is possibly transference.)
posted by seanyboy at 4:57 AM on November 11, 2008


Am I just being a picky nag, who should respect his way of talking, or should I continue to correct him, in hopes that his grammar will improve with *gentle reminders?

Rather than try to soften the blow of perceived racism by administering it yourself at a lower frequency (and driving yourself crazy in the process) you need to honestly and cheerfully let this go. I don't think it's possible to win this battle and still be a good wife.
posted by hermitosis at 5:06 AM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


"Ebonics" is a racist term, and an innaccurate one that has clouded this discussion since it entered pop culture in the 90s. The proper term is "African American Vernacular English," and as a linguist I can assure you AAVE is considered a legitimate, and obviously fully grammatical, dialect (actually several overlapping dialects) of English. Stigmatized yes, but not ungrammatical in the slightest.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:08 AM on November 11, 2008 [17 favorites]


Beyond the obvious of it making him sound like an uneducated thug,

Wow. You need to check yourself. You seriously, seriously do. This is completely ridiculous and frankly, bigoted. He doesn't sound like an uneducated thug. HE SOUNDS LIKE A BLACK MAN FROM SOUTH CAROLINA.

Should I say people from Maine sound like hicks because they say "lobstah"? No. Because it's rude and silly.

How about as an ambassador to white people you let them know that people shouldn't be judged to be "uneducated thugs" based on superficial bullshit?

So: no, you shouldn't nag him, you should get over it. If you can, you should enjoy the fact that he can go back and forth between two dialects. It's cool, and an awesome skill. I bet you couldn't do it.
posted by sondrialiac at 5:12 AM on November 11, 2008 [10 favorites]


As a person who spent a long time in a region of Canada where a variation of English that's lower status is spoken, you would be alarmed to know that since we border Maine (and that particular province often feels a much stronger affinity to Maine than western Canada), your English carries similarities to "Maritime" It's also conveniently accent neutral, so we have a lot of call centres that service the US, and you probably don't think you sound at all vulgar. That's the way proper people speak, right?

Just remember, someone out there thinks that you sound like an impoverished yokel and associates you with tax handouts, lobster fishing and merely highschool level education. Now excuse me, I need to regain the nice, proper English of Montreal, so those dreadfully pretentious girls from small town Ontario stop asking where I'm from. *Snobby sniffs*

That being said, if he was raised listening to Ebonics and he speaks it around you, that means he thinks you’re family. It’s not chronic, unselfconscious flatulence, it’s a speech pattern. If he wants you to correct his speech, he wouldn’t tease you for the pretense of possessing the Queen’s Own English. You are essentially being racist, and he’s tolerating it because he loves you.
posted by Phalene at 5:14 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would not try to change him . Come down to Ne York and you would notice everybody speaking differently to you also .

As long as he doesnt do the so called bad language at say fancy functions then dont say anything.


If he doesnt correct his speech around you then he is comfortable with you . Most people will talk right when they have to .

As long as he is a good person then why does it matter how they speak?
posted by majortom1981 at 5:25 AM on November 11, 2008


While I think the OP is massively overreacting and trying to be some kind of martyr for bi-racialism, I also tend to wonder why her husband is using this black mode of communication with his white wife? If you spoke German fluently, would you speak English to a friend from Munich who only had a few high school classes in ESL and struggled with it? Or would you choose to respect that person by communicating in the language the two of you shared?

So why does the husband choose to use a dialect his wife doesn't fully understand when speaking to her when he's already demonstrated that he can and does speak a dialect she does fully understand? There's a power play happening in this marriage, and it's not just the poster who's got some kind of agenda.

I agree with those who've suggested counseling. There's a larger issue happening here (possibly the husband is using his dialect to rebel against the wife's martyr complex, possibly something else) and they need to figure out what that issue actually is. It would help, too, for them to learn some communication skills in general, such that nagging isn't actually under consideration as a valid long term communication method.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:24 AM on November 11, 2008


While I don't like AAVE (I'm African-American, but in that my parents are from a country in West Africa and I grew up there, but I am an American citizen) and find it really jarring, I agree that this is not a battle to pick. You won't win (right or wrong doesn't matter here), and you'll just drive a bit of a rift between you guys over time.

However, I take offense at his saying that ebonics is a way for "black people" to communicate. Wtf? Not all black people speak ebonics or like ebonics. It is a way for some black people (and even some non-blacks) who grew up in certain cultures to communicate. I also take offense at the assumption that "Standard American English" is white people speak. The whole idea of talking white is offensive and really, really upsets me. I am not trying to be white by speaking the way I do. I am being who I was raised to be.
posted by quirks at 6:25 AM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sorry, Quirks, didn't mean to be offensive in labeling them black and white -- it was just a convenient short hand for the situation. I'll try to be more sensitive to the complexity of it in the future.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:34 AM on November 11, 2008


Learn to stop making it an issue, and he will speak how he wants to speak.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:35 AM on November 11, 2008


I know he knows this bugs the hell out of me

And you know that your nagging corrections bug him at least as much, if not more. Two wrongs don't make a right, no?

He can speak very well when he wants to

This means that he is deliberately code switching. He has the ability

It makes him sound not as smart as he truly is

As someone who lives on the far side of the country from you, can I gently let you know that your Maine accent is not associated with high culture and educational brilliance, either? (One might caricature it as "northeastern seacoast hillbilly," if one were to want to be rude.)

In other words, this is your baggage; he has lived with this all his life and is at this point pretty adept at code switching to match his situation. If he's using his vernacular dialect around white people (including you), it's either because he is doing it on purpose to poke their buttons, or he is signaling that he is comfortable and can be more himself.

And most of us do this, albeit sometimes to a lesser extent. Do you speak exactly the same way hanging out in a local bar compared to sitting in a job interview in California?

As your language ("thug," etc) shows, there is a lot of stigma associated with stereotypes of how black people speak. And there can be a lot of stigma associated with an interracial marriage in a place where it's not common, as I well know. But at the end of the day, you should be your husband's ally, not one more person telling him he's different and will never fit in.

Stop with the preemptive nagging, step back, and see what problems (if any) are actually being caused. If he is bombing job interviews because of how he talks, that's a real issue that you can work on (either by working on the code switching, or moving to a more accepting place). But if he's just gently pushing some white people's buttons, let him have his little pleasure in life.
posted by Forktine at 6:37 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oops, didn't complete a sentence:

He can speak very well when he wants to

This means that he is deliberately code switching. He has the ability to move between "black" and "white" speech, and you need to see these switches as informed choices, not displays of ignorance and thuggery.
posted by Forktine at 6:39 AM on November 11, 2008


So why does the husband choose to use a dialect his wife doesn't fully understand when speaking to her when he's already demonstrated that he can and does speak a dialect she does fully understand?

Whaa? There is nothing in the post that indicates she doesn't understand what he's saying, she just doesn't like it ("This gets on my very last nerve...") probably because she was raised a certain way, as noted in a previous thread.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:13 AM on November 11, 2008


I don't think you can correct him.

If I married someone from Ireland, I would find their accent and dialect so totally appealing and lovely that I'd be horrified if they changed it. If they stopped saying, "I'm just after going to the store" instead of "I just went to the store". I don't know what the difference is here. I would personally hate to get my English corrected by my spouse. That would constitute horrific nagging on my part. I am fairly articulate and can write well, etc...when someone corrects my grammar, it's a total buzz kill. What's really important here?

As far as racists living in Maine, I can't imagine it's more racist here than it is in, say, Alabama?
posted by sully75 at 7:19 AM on November 11, 2008


I know plenty of black people who don't speak "ebonics". And as you say, your husband is clearly capable of speaking "proper" English (and by proper, I mean the type of English that you read in the New York Times).

I frankly think it's inconsiderate for your husband to speak "ebonics" (which is difficult for some whites to understand) when he is around those who do not. Imagine a bilingual person who speaks Spanish or Chinese around those who don't, when he could easily speak the language that the whole group speaks. I would find that rude, and being put off by that doesn't make me a racist.

My advice to you is to ask him to be mindful of the company he keeps, and try harder to make them more comfortable. That's just being polite.
posted by BobbyVan at 7:29 AM on November 11, 2008


You have two issues here. First, he is black, but second, he is from the South.

That latter issue is more important than you realize. MAJOR cultural differences.

Ebonics really is a dialect-and one some of us southern white folks have picked up a little here and there. Not to mention I myself talk differently around my family than I do in "formal" public situations.

As to your main question? I'd leave your husband alone with it. He knows perfectly well when to use and not to use his vernacular. If he chooses to use it at times you find uncomfortable, it isn't because he is ignorant. It is because it is his choice to use it.

He is who he is. Just love him and leave it at that. All husbands have quirks that embarrass the heck out of their wives.

(sully75, the old saw (which has a lot of truth to it) is this: In the South people are predjudiced against a race but not against the individual-in the North people are prejudiced against individuals and not the group as a whole.)

To the OP-people who lean toward prejudice will be idiots no matter what. Don't sweat it.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:36 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Am I just being a picky nag, who should respect his way of talking

Yes. And you'd better take the information in this thread on board, or you may wind up alienating a man you love. If he's "the most awesome man, who treats me like gold," I strongly suggest you learn to appreciate him as he deserves and stop picking on him for irrelevant bullshit. He talks the way he's comfortable talking, and you should be glad he feels comfortable around you. Would you insist he wear a three-piece suit every time he's in your presence? Well, then why do you want to insist on the linguistic equivalent?

The way you talk is no better than the way he talks. Ask any linguist. Stop aiding and abetting the racist/classist elitism that spoils the democratic promise of America, and make both your husband and yourself happier.
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on November 11, 2008 [11 favorites]


As you point out, there are many benefits associated with speaking the standard dialect. You are often perceived as better educated, more intelligent etc.

Yes there are, and sometimes this perception is borne of snobbery, consciously or unconsciously. Where I grew up it's common to hear 'them days', 'you was/we was', which should make the grammarian in me cringe, but the linguist in me knows that that is simply the way people there talk when amongst their family and friends. If I tried to correct grown adults for speaking in a way that is perfectly normal for their environment? I'd sound like an ass.

The poster I quoted makes a good point that it's important to Talk Proper when the situation arises, but it sounds like your man can do that. He's at no risk of being thought of as thick or common (two other Northern words for you there) for not 'talking white' (and I think also that this is a very iffy concept..)
posted by mippy at 7:55 AM on November 11, 2008


You agree with your neighbors that black folks who speak black sound like thugs. Your husband is making a point by speaking black even though he knows you hate it and even though he is comfortable speaking white when he wishes.
posted by desuetude at 8:00 AM on November 11, 2008


AAVE contains so much more than mere dialect and accent, and you're noticing that some people tense when faced with a unique identifier that your husband is still tied to his dominant culture linguistically. Frankly, that's their problem.

AAVE isn't impenetrably difficult to hear and understand. It's not like having someone speak Spanish, German, or Vietnamese in your presence. It's mostly the impatient and culturally anxious who find it bothersome to navigate it. Most folks are actually being blocked by their own cultural baggage instead of any real barricade to understanding. Especially with as much exposure as we receive to it in the media.

If you respond to your husband positively and as if he's just as smart (if not smarter) than the people around you reacting poorly, you'll defuse part of the tension. By tensing up and being disparaging, you're just adding more stress and baggage to the situation (and him).

If your husband doesn't feel the social discomfort from his language choices and he's not actively insulting people, there's no reason to interfere with his self-determination. That's a fragile thing for many men, but even more so for Black men.

You married a person from another culture. They have accents and differences in speaking. Part of your role as a diplomat for your relationship (not every intercultural relationship, just yours) is to show that it is strong and based on mutual respect, not conformity to the norm or toeing invisible lines that do nothing to improve humanity or the world.

Accepting his language choices and knowing he can decide when it's inappropriate (and can take the heat for himself if he chooses erroneously) will do more good for your husband and marriage than doing the opposite could ever do for other people or their impressions of your union.
posted by batmonkey at 8:02 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


As a general rule, I've found that nagging works in extreme moderation. If you nag daily, it gets ignored. But if you choose your moments appropriately and infrequently, the message might be better received and the recipient might resolve to act on it. This requires a certain sensitivity that is easily occluded by being judgmental.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:07 AM on November 11, 2008


This sort of question brings out the worst in many Mefites, I'm afraid.

Keep nagging, sweetheart, he loves you for it. If you stop, he'll think you don't care any more, and before you know it, he'll be two-timing you with Lynne Truss.
posted by Phanx at 8:10 AM on November 11, 2008


I frankly think it's inconsiderate for your husband to speak "ebonics" (which is difficult for some whites to understand) when he is around those who do not. Imagine a bilingual person who speaks Spanish or Chinese around those who don't, when he could easily speak the language that the whole group speaks. I would find that rude, and being put off by that doesn't make me a racist.

The OP understands what her husband is saying perfectly (she just doesn't like it), so this is a pretty bad metaphor. This is more akin to my grandparents smattering their speech with Yiddish around their grandkids--we understand it contextually, even if we don't speak the language ourselves.

I, for one, would be flattered that my SO felt comfortable enough to use their home dialect around me. It means that, on some level, he doesn't view you as being one of those update racists he has to change himself around. Quit trying to prove him wrong.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:13 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Er, uptight racists.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:14 AM on November 11, 2008


Most of us having varying levels of formality in our speech, and most of us are much less formal when we're with people we've very close to, because formal language is one of the societal fronts that slips away when we're relaxing with loved ones. We pay less attention to how we're communicating and more into what we're communicating.

Your husband's slipping out of standard formal English when with you is very likely a sign that he feels close to you and is letting his guard down because he trusts you. You could probably nag him into speaking formally to you, but you would put distance between you by doing so. I would say that his calling you "teacher" and "Judge Judy" is a sign that's already happening.
posted by fidelity at 8:14 AM on November 11, 2008


uhhh…jacquilynne and BobbyVan, your examples are comparing apples to oranges. the OP's husband isn't speaking an entirely different language, he's speaking the same language, just in a different dialect. if you want to make an analogy, it would be better if you said, what if he was irish and spoke english—every english-speaking person in the world is gonna still understand him (for the most part).
posted by violetk at 8:14 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ebonics is a way for black people to have their own way of communicating" and I agree with this statement, with the addition that it makes me, at least, feel excluded.

I, a very educated black woman, often break into so-called Ebonics, even in mixed company, as a way to emphasize a point. I do it only in situations where I'm around people who know me well but it is part of a speech pattern that has cultural significance to me. It's not meant to be exclusionary any more than my Jersey-born Italian ex's use of the word "youse." He's from Jersey. That's how he talks .... and he's an educated professional with 20 years at a federal agency.

I really get tired of hearing some white people say they feel "excluded" when blacks or other cultures do something that's foreign to them. It's not about you.

Your uptight Maine neighbors probably have views about your husband based on not knowing him. You know him. You know he's an intelligent man. So what he should have been done stopped talking Ebonics. He doesn't want to. It's probably a way for him to stay connected to his culture up there in lily-white Maine. I don't blame him. Cut him some slack.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 8:29 AM on November 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


A number of posters above claimed he was intentionally code switching to bait you. I assure you that in most cases it is entirely subliminal.

I'm not black, in fact I'm Chinese. I grew up in the South, took honors classes, and worked in a day care with 90% black staff and black kids. I find myself switching to AAVE when talking to people who share this dialect with me, especially when playing basketball. I switch to a Southern dialect when I'm in the country, whether it's the South or even the West. Most of the time I speak a nice midwestern English appropriate to the state I live in now. When talking to my parents, I often slip in Chinese.

I never notice I do these things until Mrs. Advicepig points them out. She finds it really funny.
posted by advicepig at 8:54 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's a reason you nag, and the language is merely a convenient target. I doubt it has anything to do with black/white, AAVE/Standard English, Maine/South Carolina, or you two vs. stupid racists. This has everything to do with your relationship and almost nothing to do with race.

When I nag my husband about leaving his dirty clothes on the floor, it's not about "the clothes on the floor." It's that I feel he's not being considerate of my preference for a clean floor and that he's not helping me enough around the house. Maybe I feel put upon, because I've had to do the laundry the last five times. Maybe he's got yet another business dinner that night and I will miss him. But it's much easier to nag him about the dirty clothes than it is to be vulnerable.

If I feel wonderful about our relationship, and I feel how great he is to me rather than just knowing it intellectually, then the clothes on the floor don't matter. I suggest you look at what is really going on within you and why you let it irritate you.

(P.S. We're both white and he's a HORRID speller with barely-legible handwriting.)
posted by desjardins at 8:58 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


As a data point, along with Forktine and the Canadians I don't consider the Maine, or New England dialects in general, the epitome of high culture. Even more gently, I might inform you that as a Texan many of dialects up there sound to me like mild to severe speech impediments. What you call "Ebonics" is far more intelligible and dignified to my white ear.

Furthermore, despite the right wing scare tactics of the 1990s, "ebonics" does not evoke thuggery to those who ignored those scare tactics. It's rather surprising to even see that word used in 2008.

You have two big problems: a relationship problem and a misunderstanding of dialects. The first can be corrected by a counselor, the second by reading a book.

I'd argue that there's a third problem, your assumption that Maine-style racism = desirable place for anyone, let alone a biracial couple, half of which is extremely insecure, to live in.

If I lived in a place that made me uptight about my choice of husband, to the point that I badgered him to speak differently than he'd spoken his entire life, I'd move. Or I'd get a Maine-approved husband. Think seriously about what's important to you now, because your husband's speech isn't going to change.
posted by vincele at 9:03 AM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


I agree with everyone here who says (a) AAVE/Ebonics is just as grammatical as Standard English, and (b) even if your husband was at fault, nagging isn't an effective way to change a loved one's behavior (as you've already discovered).

What I'd like to add is that I sympathize with you. I think you're feeling something that many people feel but that few admit to feeling. (Actually, tons of people admit to it, but not in liberal, over-educated communities.) To be specific, you care about the opinions of those around you. That doesn't mean you endorse those opinions. You might hate them. But you care. And that's natural and human. Sometimes in these discussions, people say things like, "Why do you care about what racist assholes think?" Or, worse, they berate you for caring. But you have to live around these people, so of course you do care. Unless you're a misanthrope or an incredibly independently-minded (or righteous) person, you're going to care. You're a social animal.

I'll risk adding sexism to a thread that already is dealing with another hot-button issue by saying that this is a particularly challenging issue for women. For instance, I don't really care if my wife wants to walk around the city wearing ratty clothes (though I enjoy it when she dresses up). If I knew she went to the office with unwashed hair, I wouldn't get embarrassed. But if I wore dirty clothes or didn't bathe for a couple of days, my wife would feel humiliated. She would feel like my slovenly behavior reflected on her, as if people were saying (or thinking) "Can you believe that woman? She lets her husband go out of the house looking like THAT? Shame on her!"

It's easy for me to call her concerns shallow, but as a typical guy (in this respect), I wasn't brought up in a culture that cared about such things. On the other hand, my wife was. She was brought up in a feminine culture in which interconnectedness was super-important (in my "guy" culture, being independent had a higher premium). She spent years having to worry about how she looked, what she wore, who she was seen with, etc. You can call this a terrible thing (and she'd probably agree), but just because something is bad -- even if you acknowledge it's bad -- that doesn't mean it has no effect on you.

Liberal women (or men who share these feelings) are in a double bind. In lefty culture, one is not supposed to care about superficial things. That doesn't stop the feelings; it just makes one feel guilty for having them. I think you're brave to come on mefi and admit this is bugging you.

You could argue that there are practical reasons why I should be well groomed. There are health benefits to bathing, etc. But many cultural practices are arbitrary. It doesn't cause any practical harm for me to go to the office with messed-up hair and ripped jeans. It's not a health risk for me to sip my soup with a straw. But if I did that, people would notice and comment. And that would cause my wife pain. She could try to ignore the pain or she could chastise me. But neither choice would make the pain less real.

In the end, my feeling, Grlnxtdr, is that this is an instance where you need to deal with your pain/humiliation. You need to buck up and accept the fact that your husband is who he is and that there's nothing wrong with who he is or how he talks. Be brave and put up with jibes for the sake of what's right. That IS a sacrifice on your part -- and I acknowledge that -- but it's a sacrifice you need to make. You're not going to change peoples's minds if they're deeply racist. If you want to make a difference, the best way you can do so is to embrace your man for who he is and stand proudly by him. You WILL be embarrassed sometimes. That sounds like a price worth paying for such a great husband.

That's not to say that I think think wives (or husbands) should have to put up with all eccentric behaviors from their partners. I do think I owe it to my wife, whether I personally care or not, to dress in a way that doesn't embarrass her. Marriage is (and always will be) a delicate dance that involves giving up some quirks while maintaining the core of who one is. But we're talking about someone's race and culture here. If I dress like a slob, that's not because I'm inheriting a long cultural legacy; it's because I'm lazy.
posted by grumblebee at 9:22 AM on November 11, 2008 [13 favorites]


Wow, I'm happy to have gotten so many responses to this, but I feel I've been a bit misunderstood. My husband and I tease each other about our black/white southern/northern differences all the time. We laugh ourselves to tears about all things racial. In fact, we laugh ourselves to tears about almost everything.


I think maybe some people focused on the word ambassadors. That is a word we both use, an inside joke, sort of, to describe the spirit in which we present ourselves, saying, "Look, we are a bi-racial couple and we are JUST LIKE YOU."

To address above, no, sometimes I do NOT understand what he is saying. Yes, intellectually, I know that "ebonics" is a dialect. I only used the word because I thought it was pretty succinct. He also teases me about white people, and so nagging maybe wasn't what I meant, more like teasing. For the record, I highly don't think I'm racist. I wasn't raised to be, I love people in general, and this is more about grammar than some sort of racial thing.

I AM listening, though, but felt the need to defend and clarify. Thanks to all for your input.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 9:34 AM on November 11, 2008


In fact, we laugh ourselves to tears about almost everything.

And in the end, that's all that really matters.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 9:38 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Perhaps I'm projecting in using a language example because I do find other dialects of English quite difficult to understand. Accented standard English, not really, but someone speaking strongly in the vernacular of Ireland or Australia or wherever, I find quite challenging. It's not usually an issue in movies or on TV, where everyone is speaking slowly and enunciating their complete sentences, but in actual conversation it can be difficult.

I assume I would have similar difficulties with AAVE, though I haven't been exposed to it enough to know. I used the example of people who entirely share one common language but only partially share another language quite deliberately, given the circumstances.

This couple shares a common dialect, yet one of them chooses to use a non-shared dialect on a regular basis. I think there's more to this than just that the original poster is a snob with no appreciation for the finer points of AAVE dialogue. Sure, that's part of it, but I just don't think this is a one-sided power struggle.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:39 AM on November 11, 2008


I think we need some clarification from the OP about the issue. Does he speak ebonics with you and other intimates or is he fond of slipping into dialect when interacting with relative strangers? If it's just the former, I think you are being WAY too uptight - you should make the effort to be more comfortable with his native way of speaking rather than forcing him to user Standard English. He already has adapted a relatively foreign dialect in order to interact with you and others.

If it's the latter, it might be worth reminding him that not everyone is comfortable with dialect, especially in a parochial society such as the one you find yourself in.
posted by sid at 9:49 AM on November 11, 2008


If it's the latter, it might be worth reminding him that not everyone is comfortable with dialect, especially in a parochial society such as the one you find yourself in.

He's an adult. I think reminding a grown black man that society is not always comfortable with him and his culture is the height of idiocy.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:41 AM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


He does it whenever he is being "jokey" which is often. The more animated, the more slang-y. Looking at it, no he doesn't really do this in a professional setting. Seeing this from the angle that it just means he's very comfy with me makes me happier. Though I don't say "lobstah" or "cah".

Our relationship is a very good one and we laugh about our differences often, we laugh at the racists. I thank Grumblebee and others for 'getting it'. When he says stuff in an *exaggerated*slang words kind of way, I feel like he's picking his nose or something.

I don't say "slang-y shit" with a sneer on my face, either. He teases me about white people not being able to dance (we go out dancing all the time), he teases me about white bread. He teases me about all things "white". This is not a case where I want him to be white, at all. Or to talk "white", whatever that means. But 'ain't got no' and other phrases which murder standard English drives me nuts!

Yes, I realize that my DH has been dealing with racism his entire life. I have not. I'm working on it. I didn't post as anonymous because I know that I am asking this with the best of intentions, I'm not a closet racist, or a martyr. I love my husband very much and will take every word here into consideration.

I will definitely stop making an issue about his dialect, but I doubt I'll be able to go cold turkey on the grammar. I'll try, though.

FWIW, we both adore Judge Judy :)
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:46 AM on November 11, 2008


A person's ACCENT does not make him sound stupid. A person's DIALECT does not make him sound stupid.

A person's OPINIONS make him sound stupid. A person's attempts to sound like something he's NOT all too often make him sound stupid, and more than a little pathetic.

Spike Lee (to cite one of too may examples) speaks BEV but he still comes off as intelligent and articulate. Somebody who would deride a black man for using it would also deride him for having an accent- regardless of which dialect he was trying to effect.

I'd be very curious about what nuggets of vernacular your husband uses that annoy you...
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:58 AM on November 11, 2008


He does it whenever he is being "jokey" which is often. The more animated, the more slang-y. Looking at it, no he doesn't really do this in a professional setting. Seeing this from the angle that it just means he's very comfy with me makes me happier.

God, this sounds so familiar. I come across to most people as a serious person, because I behave seriously around most people. I behave seriously here most of the time, even in threads where most people are joking around. But my username (which is a total nonsense word) is a clue to my inner nature. Inside, I'm the silliest guy in the world. Alas, I'm too uptight and shy in public to let that side out. But when I'm really relaxed, happy nonsense spews out of me. I make puppets out of everything; I call buffaloes "fluffaloes"; I talk like Animal on the Muppet Show.

I pretty much only act like this around my wife. I know it sometimes embarrasses her. But the truth is, I do it because I trust her so deeply that I'm able to do something around her I'm not able to do around anyone else: let my guard down. It's 100% about love.
posted by grumblebee at 11:13 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


But 'ain't got no' and other phrases which murder standard English drives me nuts!

I don't know if it would hep you at all to consider the history of the English language and the fact that English standardization is only about two hundred years old. What we define as "grammar" is essentially an artificial yoking of our language to outdated conventions--against the tide of language development, which pushes strongly in the other direction, towards more efficient usage. Slang like "ain't" and the double negative usually follows pretty strict grammatical rules and serves to eliminate inadequacies in "standard" English grammar, even if you won't find it in any elementary school English primers. I mean, check out what wikipedia has to say on the matter:
Ain’t would solve one logical problem of English grammar; it would serve as a useful contracted inverted form in the question “Ain’t I?” Many prescriptivists prefer “Aren’t I?” in this situation; (the Hiberno-English and Scottish English form Amn’t I? follows other patterns), and for speakers of non-rhotic accents this may only be a baroque spelling of one possible pronunciation of the eighteenth century an’t. Ain’t is also obligatory in some fixed phrases, such as “Say it ain’t so” and “you ain’t seen nothing yet” (though for the former, “Say it isn’t so” is also sometimes used). Under grammatical analysis of some dialects of nonstandard English, such as African-American vernacular English (AAVE), use of ain’t is in fact required in some conditions. In AAVE, ain’t is used as a substitute for hasn’t in certain past tenses. Thus, one would say “she ain’t called me” for “she hasn’t called me”.
Similarly, ask any Southerner about proper usage of "ya'll"--it's plural, which many, many Northern users parodying Southern accents miss. You never say "Ya'll come back now" to one person.

That's not to say that I don't somewhat empathize--I teach college freshmen, who have rarely had any grammar training, how to write. But I'm also a writer, and I recognize that the use of slang/vernacular grammar in the correct context is a powerful linguistic tool, and to discount it as simply being "incorrect" does both the speakers and the language an injustice.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:15 AM on November 11, 2008


That is a word we both use, an inside joke, sort of, to describe the spirit in which we present ourselves, saying, "Look, we are a bi-racial couple and we are JUST LIKE YOU."

Well, that's part of the problem. If your husband is a black guy from NC and you're a white lady from Maine, you're not going to be JUST LIKE a white couple from Maine. And that's fine. I think there's a danger in presupposing that the only way to combat racism is to deny that people are at all different. Your husband comes from a different culture that the one you are currently living in. He's going to be different, and that's fine.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:18 AM on November 11, 2008


I will definitely stop making an issue about his dialect, but I doubt I'll be able to go cold turkey on the grammar. I'll try, though.

It's good you're going to try and stop "correcting him". Just keep reminding yourself that his dialect has a working grammar of its own. Before you play the "my English trumps your English" game think about how you'd feel if a British person berated you for using the simple past where they use the present perfect. Or for saying "gotten" when they say "got." Or for saying "in line" instead of "on line." I mean, SHEESH, don't you know how to use tenses and prepositions? What are you, uneducated?

"Correct English grammar" is not nearly as agreed-upon an idea as you think. If it's not affecting his career, let it be.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:24 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have an assignment for you, Grlnxtdr: seek out the BEST examples of spoken, sung and written AAVE you can find. (Alas, I can't help you with that, but I'm sure others here can. I wish I could make myself like hiphop, but I don't think that's going to happen. Can anyone point me towards amazing AAVE that I can hear or read without listening to rap?)

Just as there's perfectly good Standard English (most of the writing here) and great Standard English (John Updike; F. Scott Fitzgerald), there's got to be workaday AAVE and genius AAVE. Great writers have helped me understand how expressive and beautiful Standard English can be. I believe great writers can do that for any dialect or any language. You can't hear the beauty in AAVE because it's alien to you. That's normal. I remember when I couldn't hear the beauty in Shakespeare. Elizabethan blank verse wasn't natural to me. But I studied it via its best writers and now I love it.

When people here say AAVE is perfectly grammatical, they mean that it's a complete, logically-consistent language system. Any system with inner consistency can be beautiful. If you want to be snobbish about the way your husband speaks, don't waste your time criticizing him for speaking correctly within a working system. Since you don't understand that system, you have no more right criticizing him than you do criticizing a mathematician for putting some odd-looking symbol into one of his formulas. FIRST learn the math. Then at least you'll have some grounds for criticizing.

When you tell your husband he should use better grammar, you're really telling him to use Standard English grammar. But that grammar would be BAD grammar in AVVE! Either tell him to give up AVVE altogether or tell him to speak it with ITS correct grammar. Gravy is delicious, but it's not delicious on ice cream.
posted by grumblebee at 11:28 AM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


I hate it when I ask a question here and instead of answering it, people attack the premise and derail the question. But then I go do it too. It's easy for people to be sanctimonious in questions like this and to pile on, but when many people point out the same flaw in your reasoning, it can be a useful mirror. So to answer your direct question, no, don't nag him. It will never work and you won't find peace until you let go and stop trying to swim upstream. Be a leaf in this regard, not a salmon. You also won't make any converts up there because even if they accept your husband if he speaks only like you/them, they'll still dislike all the people who speak the way they don't like if that was part of their reason for disliking them. It's like that old saying they used to use in Maine when giving directions to lost travelers: "You cahn't get theyah from heeah." You want to be an ambassador who sets a good example and converts people. But if they ever convert, it will be via a different route than through your husband's speech.

Now let me attack your premise and also reveal my own hand. I've read some of your clarifications, and it sounds like more to do with grammar than culture, but I'll leave this as is just in case parts of it can still be useful.

I will risk the flames and say that I don't like the AAVE dialect(s) or what sounds like broken English spoken by white people, usually rural Southern white people. Since I was a very young child I've never liked it, especially when my teachers spoke that way. It sounds uneducated and wrong to me. And it persists despite education (clue). But that's my problem and says more about me than anyone. It's logically flawed and is something I need to reconcile. It's born of a rigidity that implies that I am entitled to something that I'm not, which is that people should speak the way I think is acceptable. I think it's part of a larger package of thinking that people should act like me, dress like me (pull those pants up!), prioritize like me, and so on if they are to have my respect and acceptance. It's ethnocentrism and, at its core, egocentrism, as though there were an authority, ultimately stemming from me, to which everyone is supposed to conform. I grew up in a non-racist, progressive household, but I marinated in a wider environment that was suffused with racist history and culture. So I'm sure my dislike of the various AAVE dialects is tied to ethnocentrism at a minimum and possibly something more toxic. Maybe throw some OCD in there too - not sure - but it's visceral. If I'm being honest, I don't want to hear people speak that way.

It would seem that you, married to a black man, could not possibly qualify as racist. So we can discard that as an unuseful term here and maybe use socialization, culture, cultural programming, cultural preference, cultural familiarity, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, or something else that signifies a natural reaction to otherness or divergence that most people unconsciously exhibit for at least part of their existence, if not all of it, but minus any intentional malice. It still may be an area where you can do some exploring.

The words and implied assumptions that jump out at me in your post are: thug, uneducated, toilet, unintelligent, not a real dialect, not speaking well, needs correcting, improper, you and yours are smart and good, people who speak like he sometimes does are not smart and good, etc.

Regardless of loving and marrying a black man, it sounds like you may have some underlying and unexplored assumptions about the large number of black people in this country who speak like him to one degree or another as @sondrilliac more succinctly suggested. Read the above list of words and themes again. Thug is maybe the easiest to focus on. There is such a thing as a thug and there are black people who fit that definition. And if you encounter one, it's unlikely he'll sound like Tom Brokaw. But he could sound similar to millions of other black people who aren't thugs, just regular people with families, homes, jobs, education, etc. and no boorishness or inclination to hurt anyone. So if in your head, speaking that way = thug, consider whether that's a fair projection. Or let's say you just used the word thug casually and didn't really mean it in its full literal sense. I'm sure that's the case. There are still all of the other descriptors you used or implied. Try to imagine all of the people who speak that way and see if you can comfortably apply those terms and assumptions to all of them. If so, recognize that you're saying that millions of black people are not up to snuff and should be disdained until they can get with the program. Could that be the case? Is there a legitimate basis for it? Or does the logic break down at that level? If so, reassess. But figure out where this is coming from.

They say you can't change the other person in a relationship and that if you want change, you have to change yourself. This would be a good opportunity to try that. Forget trying to manage your husband in this way. Firstly, it's not going to work because it's part of who he is, not a defect. You delegitimize him by trying to excise it. Secondly, it's going to cause ongoing tension and resentment for both of you. Lastly, it rests on some flawed premises. Find a way to let go of your resentment for his occasional speechways. It may be a leap of faith at first, but commit to embracing it as part of loving all of him. Let go and the rest of your heart and head will catch up. Easier said than done, but I think that's the path for me anyway.

As for the intolerant neighbors, let them manage themselves, even if it's ugly, even if, as you imagine, they use your husband's occasional dialect as reinforcement of their negative views about black people. You can't fix them by asking your husband to act like what you think is a model black person in hopes that they will see the light and release their bad feelings for the rest of the race. I know that's the legitimate temptation, but there are some hooks in it. Because in so doing, aren't you really saying "See, neighbors? They can be smart just like us!" That's worth unpacking.

As a thought experiment, try to imagine who would ultimately settle disputes over language, grammar, speech patterns, accents, dialects, etc. Who is right and who decides? The dictionary people? A council of English professors? A panel of newscasters? If so, who put them in charge? Who made the standards they would enforce and what authority did that person have? Language is infinitely varied, constantly evolving, a product of use, and belongs to everyone in whatever form they choose to use it. Why aren't we still speaking King James English, for example? What a bunch of vulgar thugs we are. There are practicalities involved in the use of language in any society, and your husband can navigate that on his own. But there are no absolutes, and nobody's in charge.

Having said all that... I see now that I have been misspelling "perturbed" all these years. Thanks!
posted by kookoobirdz at 11:28 AM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


Just another perspective on this. I'm white, and so is my wife. We both speak SAE, and in fact, we're both unapologetically picky about it. (When one of us misspells a word in a text message to the other, we often send a correction. Yes. That picky.)

Once in a while, my wife mispronounces an obscure word or commits some other trivial solecism. And once in a while, I correct her. I consider this my failing, not hers, and I am getting better about restraining that impulse. There's just no need for it.
posted by adamrice at 1:31 PM on November 11, 2008


It's worth clarifying the basic premise of modern language science: all natural human language is fully (indeed, extravagantly) grammatical -- and even "ungrammatical" surface forms (speech under stress, elision, etc) have a regular underlying structures that are fully rule governed. "Bad" grammar is a prescriptivist conceit. We don't learn grammar in school. We are born knowing grammar, and require only some well formed input in order to sort out which version of grammar is the (culturally, historically) specific dialect of our speech community (sometimes confusingly called a "language," but as linguists often say, "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy").

There are many structural levels of "grammar." For example, the common metathesis in AAVE ("aks" for "ask") is a phonological rule (and may have roots in West African languages). AAVE also differs syntactically from other English dialects, for example in its use of copula deletion ("the coffee cold" vs. "the coffee be cold") to make an aspectual distinction that is not grammatically encoded in standard English, or most non-standard English dialects for that matter. Different dialect grammars encode different abstract concepts. There are situations where access to AAVE grammatical distinctions would make "standard" American English a good deal more efficient. (Indeed, as Barack Obama said in a recent stump speech, speaking of some economic issue or another, "that isn't right, and it ain't right.")

The idea of a "standard" dialect, against which other dialects can be stereotypically judged "less grammatical" and its speakers thus "less intelligent" or "lazy," is a social -- specifically, political -- phenomenon, and beyond that largely an artifact of literacy and (in certain respects) mass communications, to say nothing of the standardization of language education and the emergence of national cultures in modernity.

Every normal human being speaks a dialect; some (indeed most) speak more than one, along with various registers of one or more dialects (there are formal and informal registers of AAVE, for example). Without respect to what sociolinguists call "stigma" and "prestige," each human dialect, indeed idiolect, is a fearsomely structured system, and each act of speaking an exercise of extreme cognitive and physical complexity that usually seems completely natural and easy to most of us most of the time, making dialect a very easy-to-naturalize symbol of social difference (a nice way of saying "stereotype").

Saying this does not mean that the social phenomena of stigma and prestige, of standardization, and of attaching social capital to mastery of particular dialects (because such mastery is indexical of educational level, or ambition to succeed, of ability to operate across diverse speech communities, etc., and reliably so, though not perfectly so or there would be no actors or con artists) are "false." Or easily overcome. Or that we can or should fully avoid using "stereotypes" to make judgments about other people -- a cognitive impossibility, as we are abstracting animals and language is the abstracting tool that makes us such. But it is an argument for focusing on the social context rather than assessments of grammaticality when you want to diagnose communication problems, as the OP does.

I have no advice -- there's been better analysis of the social context elsewhere in this thread -- but this is the case for not considering the several attempts to correct the premise of the question as holier-than-thou. You have to analyze a problem correctly to solve it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:32 PM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


Just to answer Ethnomethadologist's question, without offending people-which I try hard not to do, usually:

dis, dese, dere, and dose :::: this, these, there, and those, among other things

Also, I apologized profusely to my hubs, told him Mefi had his back.

He naturally felt vindicated and I naturally felt ashamed and thoroughly chastised, shown the error of my ways. I blame it on my mother, who was very, very critical of my own grammar, and as Brandon B. pointed out, I am being that intellectual snob I hate.

Oh, the irony.

I will also be looking into myself to see if I am a racist. Thanks again to all who answered.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 2:20 PM on November 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


Grlnxtdr, I'm sincerely impressed by your response. Very few people are able to accept such a profound change in the way they think about language (which is, after all, an intimate part of us). You give me hope that my continuing efforts to educate people about this aren't futile. Give yourself a pat on the back!
posted by languagehat at 2:38 PM on November 11, 2008


Don't be too hard on yourself, you don't sound like a racist. It's perfectly natural to have preconceived notions or prejudices, what's important is that you don't let yourself be bound by them. The fact you into to look at yourself and examine if you're racist means that whatever racist tendencies you might have, you'll overcome them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:53 PM on November 11, 2008


I say, drop the whole racial angle of this whole debate and who's "right" or "wrong", and look it at from a relationship perspective (which a lot of people above are mentioning, but not necessarily expounding upon).

I've found I can NEVER ever get my partner to do something by nagging him. Well sometimes, but ONLY if it's something we've spoken (reasonably) about before, and he AGREED that he needed to fix it. Then "nagging" in the form of gentle unemotional reminders can sometimes be effective. But ONLY ONLY when he has already agreed.

In this case, your partner has not agreed on your point. Nagging, no matter how gentle, will NEVER be effective, because it's coming from a place of irritation and embarrassment from you. So he's going to respond in kind, because he's basically reflecting your own negative energy back at you.

I've found that the only way I can positively influence my partner without his explicit previous agreement is to lead by example. I can't tell you how many times I had the same conversation with my partner about motivation, being proactive, getting organized, etc... and no matter how nice or non-naggy I tried to be, it never ended well. Because no one likes being told what they're doing is wrong and that they need to change. That automatically puts them on defense. Plus you're putting out a "you're bad and wrong!" energy, when what you both need from each other the most is a supportive and accepting energy.

But as soon as I stopped nagging and started doing all the advice I'd been giving him MYSELF... and telling stories like "Wow, I've found that since I started writing everything down I'm getting so much done!"... so presenting the advice in the form of "this is really helping me so much!" without at ALL implying that THEY need to do that (and we humans are very perceptive, we can tell when you're patronizing us! Your intentions have to be totally PURE!) THAT's when he made the changes I'd been nagging him about! Instead of heckling him into changing, I inspired him to. And he in turn inspired me back by taking it further than I did, and it's been positive for everyone all around!

Of course this doesn't completely apply to your situation, but I bet once you stop nagging him about it, AND let go of your own negative emotions surrounding it (because even if you don't say anything, he can probably sense if you tense up or get irritated)... you're gonna find that he does it less. Or at the very least, it will bother you less! Win-win! :)

A similar incident between me and my guy is that I used to get very anxious and embarrassed and angry whenever he would talk about "rich" things in public, specifically pertaining to how he was raised... like how he had a psychologist as a child, and several nurses and maids, and so on. I would get angry and basically argue with him that he was overprivileged and didn't need all that stuff, trying to get him to stop talking (in public). Of course he would defend his point and talk more about it, making me further uncomfortable, and I would feel forced to prove to any listeners that "I'm not a rich snob!". It wasn't until I realized it was my own insecurities making me react this way to him that I was able to let it go. And also, finally realizing and verbalizing to him that those things embarrassed me in public made him more aware of the reasons behind my emotional reactions and able to contribute to stopping it too, if it came up.

Bottom line: Let it go, and realize that it's your emotional reaction to this issue that needs to change to make both of you happy, not the issue itself. :)
posted by thejrae at 2:55 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's cool and really open-minded of you to be so open to our tough-love suggestions and ideas.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:34 PM on November 11, 2008


should I stop nagging because it will never work

You got it. Right there.

'moonMan is a non-native English speaker and sometimes makes grammatical mistakes on purpose just to "play up" his foreign-ness. I only correct him when it's obvious that he doesn't realize that he's made a significant mistake. Otherwise, I just grind my teeth everytime he mispronounces words that I've corrected him on ten thousand times before.

Pick your battles. As long as he KNOWS the correct grammar, this isn't one worth fighting.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:20 PM on November 11, 2008


dis, dese, dere, and dose :::: this, these, there, and those

He sounds like someone from Fargo, not North Carolina.
posted by desjardins at 4:26 PM on November 11, 2008


(Ha, now that I've READ the thread, I'm sorry that I even bothered to put in a response that wasn't half as eloquent as those already offered! Oh well, better luck next time.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:28 PM on November 11, 2008


Thanks, Solon.

I can admit when I'm wrong.

I was incredibly wrong here, apparently, and I feel really bad.

This definitely made me examine my own preconceived notions of what "talking right" means.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:30 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Color me impressed, too, Grinxtdr! I am deeply, deeply moved and in awe of you. I guess it shouldn't be a big deal, but I so rarely run into anyone mature enough to say "I was wrong," that I almost don't know what to say. You may be a lucky lady to have such a fantastic husband, but your husband is also an extremely lucky man to have you!
posted by grumblebee at 4:54 PM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Not trying to pile on, just trying to help you frame this-- you need to let go of the right/wrong, correct/incorrect part of this regarding the grammar (since as many people have pointed out, non-standard grammar does not equal "incorrect" grammar.) If this is something that still gets under your skin, though, you need to treat it like any other relationship conflict: He does something that annoys you (and it annoys you even more because he knows it annoys you and does it anyway), and you nag him about changing. He says that he shouldn't have to change because it's who he is, you knew it when you married him, and you have no good reason to be annoyed by it in the first place. This is Relationships 101. How do you usually handle conflicts like that?
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:56 PM on November 11, 2008


I'm glad you've asked this question! It has allowed us all this great resource for developing and reinforcing healthy attitudes about language and culture, within ourselves and to others. Thanks!

(I also suspect that this new insight is going to open up a whole world of observation and social communication to explore. You'll start noticing interesting language phenomenon everywhere-including in your own speech! But the best part is, this acceptance and understanding will really help to strengthen the bond between you and your hubby.)
posted by iamkimiam at 5:02 PM on November 11, 2008


I've been thinking about your question all day - it's wonderful to see that you've come around. Your husband is clearly a muffin, and you shouldn't waste a half a second worrying about what ignorant jerks think about him. They're assholes, eff 'em.

You don't need to beat yourself up about this, though. What you could do instead is have fun with the whole situation, and learn to revel in the unique way your husband expresses himself. I was raised be wild English teachers, myself, but they were also into theater and dialogue (though the first time my Mom heard me say "y'all" she couldn't stop laughing, even when I explained to her it was like the vosotros tense of English.) The variations of slang, accents and regionalisms that color spoken language can be a source of delight as well as frustration. The combination of his speech and yours could eventually become your own household patois.

You could even take "Yes, Teacher," and make it into an in joke. You can be a mean teacher and make him diagram sentences in Ebonics or something.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:33 PM on November 11, 2008


Please note that it's pointless to think about racism as being an inherent quality (am I racist), rather, it's more helpful to think about racism in terms of behavior (am I doing something racist).

Examining your actions is an ongoing process that requires attention even from people who do not consider themselves racist. If you say "I'm not racist" it tends to make you forget that yes, you can do racist things.

Best of luck to you and your husband.
posted by sondrialiac at 6:09 PM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


Grlnxtdr, if you're going to be as liberal with the best answer button as you have been in this thread, then you really need to best-answer your response about apologizing to your husband, because that was awesome.

Anyone as open-minded, self-critical, and humbly accepting of the general opinions of this community would have a pretty damn hard time being an outright racist.

Good on you.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:07 AM on November 12, 2008


Ha,. I might just do that. Thanks a bunch from Mr and Mrs Grlnxtdr.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:10 PM on November 12, 2008


grumblebee: "Can anyone point me towards amazing AAVE that I can hear or read without listening to rap?"

I recommend Langston Hughes; not all of his poetry, but there's definitely some AAVE stuff that's quite lovely. Selected Poems is itself an extended example of code-switching too IMHO.
posted by epersonae at 9:53 AM on November 13, 2008


Also Amiri Baraka.

If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
by enemies
who won't let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
deep trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep
trouble

(from "Wise 1")
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on November 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Can anyone point me towards amazing AAVE that I can hear or read without listening to rap?

Depends what your definition of amazing is, but some of the Tyler Perry movies have some AAVE.
posted by sondrialiac at 1:33 PM on November 14, 2008


Have you and your husband watched The Wire? It's got black people in every socioeconomic situation, and various dialects show up. (It's also pretty masterfully written and acted.)
posted by zusty at 5:47 PM on November 14, 2008


Checking back here...will definitely check out The Wire...and to the above poem? from languagehat...

I certainly don't want to ban the hubs' boom da boom :)


"Ain't got no" just cannot stand, man.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 5:39 PM on November 22, 2008


Just to let everyone know, I have completely stopped harrassing my sweet hubs about his dialect and have definitely grown an appreciation (or a better appreciation, I should say) for black culture, including the slang.

For his part, he has pretty much dropped 'ain't' from his vocab, and has made an effort to not hurt my ears with double negatives.

Thanks, Askme!
posted by Grlnxtdr at 8:48 AM on December 11, 2008


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