Book Review: Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

TALKING-BACK-TALKING-BLACKTalking Back, Talking Black is a systematic and impassioned celebration of and commentary on Black English that elucidates and informs without ever feeling as though there is more of an agenda than that of increased understanding. Aside from the introduction, the book only contains five chapters, but each of them packs a punch as they explore different aspects of Black English, each of them split up into subsections with clearly focused headings. Throughout the text McWhorter examines the myths and realities behind what Black English is, in particular the disconnect between the academic community of linguists who see Black English as a legitimate dialect and form of English, and the general American public who often see Black English as simply a broken version of Standard English.

For all that I studied linguistics in undergrad, I’ve had disappointingly little of it lately since I decided not to pursue it as a direct field of study post-graduation, and so one of my favorite parts of this text was how it breathed the linguist in me back to life throughout the text, but especially in the moments where McWhorter goes into detail about various linguistic functions of Black English. The text spends a great deal of time emphasizing how the Black English is not merely a broken form of simplified Standard English, but in fact a complicated system of its own with distinct grammar. In chapter one, for example, McWhorter discusses five things about Black English “that demonstrate that anyone speaking Black English is doing something subtle and complex.” (36)

I should note, that while I say this book brought out the linguist in me, it was not a book written for linguists. The target audience of this book is most definitely the monolingual Standard-English-speaking American, doubtful about the validity of Black English as a form of language, and the text is geared toward unpacking and working through much of what they might think about the dialect and how accurate those opinions and thoughts are. Furthermore, while the book is definitely one that should be read by Black Americans and other Americans of color, my interpretation was that it is slightly more geared toward White Americans, in particular those who are unsure about the best way to approach the topic of Black English due to fears of seeming racist.

The majority reason that I can tell that the book is geared toward the monolingual Standard-English-speaking American is due to the nature of the linguistic explanation throughout the text. Much of the explanation that McWhorter uses relies on the reader’s natural pronunciation of certain words to follow certain patterns, such as when he uses common words to illustrate how certain vowels shape the mouth. This method is fine when everyone reading uses the vowels the same way, but such is not necessarily the case when dealing with persons who speak non-standard dialects of English since they may use different vowels to say those words. Due to my linguistic training, my familiarity with the subject, and the fact that I speak Standard English I was able to follow the explanations in the text; however, I suspect that someone who does not have the same background would not be able to follow with the same amount of ease due to heavy reliance that the text places on the assumed background of the reader.

All the same, even if the explanations of the minute linguistic detail regarding the sounds of Black English may be lost without that background, the explanations for how and why Black English exists reach beyond that hurdle, and so I do believe that this is a book that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people, even those who are not the target audience.

On the whole, I greatly enjoyed Talking Back, Talking Black, which I think makes a concentrated, elegant, and well-executed case for Black English, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the dialect, particularly those who are uncertain about its legitimacy or those seeking to provide a secure argument for Black English in the face of those who question its legitimacy.

Happy Reading!

Cheers,

Talia

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