Watch Your Mouth

“That’s just the thing. It happens all of the damn time!,” I exasperatedly stuttered.

“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”, my history teacher, Mr. Sanchez joked.

It was true, I told him, I did. “Well, not that one,” I admitted. “I have a couple.” 

This part was true as well. I am an avid “code-switcher”, I even have my degree in street talk. I find it easier to keep a collection of dialects rather than attempt to drag one around all day. I switch from mouth to mouth, talk to talk, slang to “proper English”. But I am not alone, no. The majority of American teens and young adults share this trait, as well as a good percentage of working class adults. This idea of a collective identity, or rather multitude of identities unifies, not a people, but a generation. It accomplishes the same thing that an accent does for a region. 

In his essay, “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me What Is?”, James Baldwin says, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.” The youth of today (and yesterday, and perhaps for generations to come), seeking to evolve themselves into what they believe to be a righteous and fulfilled picture of a modern teen or young adult, have constructed a system by which to identify themselves and others as fitting and familiar. We call this system “slang”. It is as much a part of a generation as you are to your’s and I am to mine, and it intends to provide an escape from conformism to a much easier way of speaking.

In the midst of a generation that searches for definition and identity, perhaps it is vital to have a an open mind and an open voice. That is, I believe, the reason behind this need for an always-changing dialect in today’s youth. We find the best way to represent our intentions is to mask them in a shroud of yolo’s and ratchet’s. It, not unlike and somehow a factor of slang, comes and goes with the tide of social nuances. It is a passing fad. That being said, something must be said for the persuasive power of slang on a generation. Think about it. When was the last time you stopped and turned when you heard the latest Oxford Dictionary entry being used by man sitting down the aisle of your bus? Often it is the unexpected blatancies of slang that draw our attention. Slang accomplishes what it intends: it get’s people heard.

But where do we draw the line? When does slang become the odd one out and “proper English” gain a foothold? Oddly, society seems to draw the boundary in certain situations and not others. “Job Interview” dialect is a term often used by comedians to describe the physical and psychological change in demeanor used by millions of people every day. This change happens when these people feel the need to substitute their everyday dialect for something more formal. This is just another code switch. Familiar and unprofessional dialect is replaced with a white-collar, almost jargon, dialect. 

At school, I talk at a loud and slang-controlled, almost rambunctiously diverse, tone. My words are short and to the point. The way I see it this is because to be heard in an environment such as school, one must be loud and to the point or his audience loses all trace of interest. You have to be funny, familiar, personal. During my commute, my dialect takes on a much blander and quieter approach. My words become slow, drawn out syllables. I lean more towards saying nothing at all rather than saying something that would seem out of place on something so diverse as a rush-hour train. When I do say something, it is often an apology or a quick thank you. It is funny how silence is the greatest weapon we have on trains against familiarizing ourselves with those strangers around us. Thirdly, my home dialect is one of passion and meaning. Not that I speak in a poetic or even an emotional way, but rather that my voice is open and free for expression. This is because I have already come to know those that I live with. I’ve had fifteen odd years to do so. 

“You don’t act like that in public, I hope.” My mother probed. “What are you going to do when you take a girl out on a date?”

“Don’t worry, Mom, I know how to act on a date.” I assured.

There are many ways in which code switching is beneficial to society. It provides a route by which teens and young adults (as well as many adults) can seek to find themselves and not lose their identity along the way. They may explore the possibilities of both sides of slang and what each entails without pledging fully to one or the other. It is, like a fad, a passing dialect, passed down from generation to generation, always changing, not unlike the people it represents.The purpose of a dialect is to express, and by no means do code switchers miss the mark. Code Switching is both a dialect and an intense display. Wielding it as a sword, young men and women everywhere hold the power to give and take away power over language. Code switching is the future.


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