Codeswitching: Black English and Standard English in the African-American Linguistic Repertoire

Charles E. DeBose
Department of English, California State University, Hayward, California, USA

In this paper, Black English (BE) and standard English (SE) are treated as two different closely-related linguistic systems which coexist in the African-American linguistic repertoire. Each system is defined as an autonomous grammar, and the interaction between them is considered to be governed by the same principles as those that govern languages in contact generally. In the process of collecting data for the purpose of describing the BE grammar the author observed some of the informants apparently codeswitching. This paper focuses on a middle-class female informant who appears to be a balanced bilingual. In the first few minutes of her performance she could be mistaken for a monolingual SE speaker. As the session progresses, however, she makes several notable switches to BE. Her last performance, in contrast to the earlier ones, is frequently in BE. The evidence considered in this paper is striking counter evidence to the claim that BE is spoken mainly by poor and uneducated persons.

Dillard, in the chapter on 'Who Speaks Black English' acknowledges that 'There are now—and were in the past—Black bidialectal speakers' (1972:230). Further along in the same discussion Dillard makes reference to 'two nearly bidialectal boys . . . who served as informants.'

Dillard attests to the occasional codeswitching of these youngsters:

There was a way of talking that they used with their friends and a way they spoke around their parents (Black English and Standard English approximately), and they had kept them apart without devoting any special effort to doing so.

He does not provide any direct evidence of their linguistic behaviour, however.

Taylor surveyed black ninth graders from southern and border states from whom he elicited a 70% affirmative response to the question: 'Can you switch dialects easily?' (1975:36). In reporting his findings Taylor comments that:

Dialect switching is a commonly observed phenomenon, especially among older and better educated blacks (1975:37).

Taylor (1983) is rightly critical of the tendency of researchers such as Dillard to associate BE with poor uneducated African-Americans and associate SE with middle-class blacks. To avoid the consequence of an excessively narrow definition of BE, i.e. of excluding middle-class blacks from the community of BE speakers, Taylor proposes a 'comprehensive' definition of BE as consisting of 'the totality of language used in the black community'.

In Taylor's definition, standard and nonstandard forms of language are components of the 'totality' which is Black English. Without resorting to what Dillard calls 'ethnic slang', an educated, middle-class black person may express his or her identification with African-American culture, free of the stigma attached to nonstandard speech, through the use of what Taylor calls 'Standard Black English'. While Taylor's definition nicely accommodates the diversity of language phenomena that exist within the rubric of African-American culture, it is not clear how it would handle the particular phenomenon of codeswitching.

In this paper, BE and SE are treated as two different closely-related linguistic systems which coexist in the African-American linguistic repertoire. Each system is defined as an autonomous grammar, and the interaction between them is considered to be governed by the same principles as those that govern languages in contact (Weinreich, 1953) generally. Such a model does not rule out Taylor's claim of standard/vernacular variation within BE, but it allows for the separate existence of an ethnically-unmarked standard English as a superposed variety. . . . .


Each of our informants exhibits some degree of codeswitching/mixing in his or her linguistic performance, and there is more data than could possibly be covered in the space allotted to this paper. I have chosen to focus on one informant, referred to by her first initial, P., who is by my estimation a balanced bilingual speaker of BE and SE. P. switches effortlessly from one variety to the other according to cues that become apparent in the course of the analysis. P.'s codeswitching was recorded in two different sessions in her home, with the researchers C. and N., her husband F., and her daughter M. present. P. is a college graduate who works as a supervisor for a government agency. She was born in South Carolina and raised, from an early age, in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay area. F. is a high school graduate with some college who is employed on the custodial staff of a local educational institution. He was born and raised in a rural community in northern Louisiana, and has resided in Oakland for most of his adult life. M., who was born and raised in Oakland, is a college student.

From listening to the first few minutes of the recording, one might get the impression that P. is a monolingual SE speaker, incapable of speaking BE. As the sessions progress, however, she makes several notable switches to BE [in italics]:

M [P’s Daughter]: My mother got on my case one time about the phone bills that I did not cause. I was away at school at . . . and somebody had stole my credit card, ah, calling card number.

C [Linguist / Researcher]: How did you feel? What was your reaction, P. . .?

In narrating her recollection of that incident, P. opts to speak SE but switches to BE several times.

P: When I got the bill I was really mad, and I'm known to be a cusser. Even all the cousins they say 'Yo mother, yo mother kin cuss. Oooo! Yo mother kin cuss!' Cause I can cuss! (laughter). Then I say 'M, what the so and so is goin' on here? What the hell goin' on?' You know, with this phone bill. 'I didn't make no calls, and blah, blah, blah.' And I say 'Well, how in the hell did these calls git on here'. So after I checked it out and, uh, found out that her roommate, (had made the calls) you know, I'd called the phone company and gave 'em the number, and all that stuff.

Most, but not all, of the BE in P's response consists of direct quotes of in-group conversations in which the choice of BE might have been expected. What seems to account for the choice of SE in the rest of the above conversational segment is the role of the researcher in eliciting remarks from the informant, who responds primarily to the researcher, with the other informants in the role of audience.

P: So at about, uh, two o'clock they wasn't back, you know, one o'clock they weren't back. They was supposed to take the bus. Two o'clock they weren't back. Three o'clock they weren't back, you know, till around four or five, I was sitting here at this counter, and I seen, saw 'em, seen 'em come, you know, slippin' by here. I said 'L! Bring yo ass (laughter)! She slip . . ., she's goin' on over to my sister's house. I said 'Where have you been all day! Where have you been!'

'We just went up to the Mall. We was, we just walkin' around. We just lookin' at the Mall, I said 'Lookin' at the Mall? Thugs and hoods hang out at the Mall! I ain't raise no thug and hood, here!' You know. So then she 'Well, we didn't, we wasn't, we just lookin' around and we got us sumpm to eat and stuff'.

The working hypothesis is that members of the African-American speech community consider SE appropriate for communicating with outsiders is supported by P.'s choice of SE in the first session to address the researchers. Her switching to BE to quote herself and report the speech of relatives in in-group situations is consistent with the hypothesis that BE is considered appropriate for communication within the ethnic group. Her choice of BE during the second session to act out her present self suggests that participants had by then achieved a sufficient degree of familiarity with the researchers to be able to act naturally in their presence, oblivious to the fact that the tape recorder was turned on.

To the extent that frequent switching between BE and SE occurs in in-group situations, the notion of situational switching does not adequately account for all instances of codeswitching by African-Americans. It may be the case that among certain African-Americans it is normal and acceptable to speak either BE, SE, or both in certain situations, and that frequent codeswitching in such situations is the unmarked choice (Scotton, 1988). One methodological obstacle to pursuing such an hypothesis is posed by the extreme similarity of BE to SE, and the practical difficulty of establishing that one code or the other is the matrix system for a given instance.

The experience of analysing the data for this paper indicates that speech community members have accurate intuitions of codeswitching which can be relied upon for preliminary identification of the code(s) spoken within given segments of speech. Systematic analysis of the lexical, grammatical, and phonological details of code tokens which were initially identified intuitively can result in a set of rigorous criteria for code identification to be used in future studies of codeswitching between BE and SE.