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When To Code And When To Switch

Jan 13, 2010

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Reported by

Michel Martin

How yuns doin'?

My husband is from the Pittsburgh area. (This is no secret, especially if you've ever been to our house a.k.a. Steeler Nation- Southeast Annex. But that's another story.) When I first met family members living there, they greeted me that way.

I confess, I had no idea what they were talking about. Yuns?

What are yuns? Some kind of ... buns?

Of course, I quickly figured out that that is the equivalent of "all of you" or "y'all" as some people say in the south. I still have never heard it outside the Pittsburgh area, nor have I heard it used by anyone who does not have roots there. But whenever there, I hear it a lot.

I love it. when I hear it, it reminds me I am in Pittsburgh. It's also why I love the colloquialism "y'all." In language, I particularity love regional expression, or "dialect."

Now, of course everybody does not love it. Or all of it. There is more than a small amount of class and race consciousness in our acceptance of certain language styles over others.

For instance, a cockney accent is cute in this country. In Britain, dare I say it, not so much. And some elements of hip-hop influenced language have become mainstream (I actually heard Colin Powell once say "don't go there" in a public hearing when he was Secretary of State), but others are so not.

I've gotten more than my share of "feedback" over some of the lingo that pops-up on Tell Me More from time to time, particularly, in the Friday Barbershop segment. The format aims for a looser, more B-shop feel than many news programs allow themselves. I totally understand it, even when I don't agree. Language marks and identifies, it connects and distances.

And it's one reason we were interested in having a conversation about "code switching." The conversation, of course, is connected to the revelation of Senate Majority Leader Harold Reid's private remark to someone (who dimed him out) that Barack Obama was electable because he is "light-skinned" and has no discernible "Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one." Much furor has resulted over that, mainly among white Republicans who say it's the equivalent of former GOP Senate leader Trent Lott's famous praise of one-time segregationist and former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

But many other African-American writers and commentators are taking a different tack.

They are saying Reid was spot on, that (skin color, aside) many African-Americans do switch language styles when they have to, or want to. It's just common sense.

Now if you heard the conversation, you may have noticed that we originally planned to only have writer Ta-nehisi Coates and Professor and blogger Marc Lamont Hill in the conversation. But writer Cynthia Tucker was still here with us in-studio following her participation in an earlier conversation on new findings about racial attitudes in the U.S., so I invited her to stick around. Some might wonder why I did not invite Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center to participate also, who was also in that earlier segment with Cynthia. Just so you know, I did ask him if he wanted in but he declined. As a pollster, he felt it best that he not offer comments on areas outside his expertise and on which he had no data, whereas Cynthia is an opinion writer and, thus, felt free to express herself as she saw fit on the code-switching issue, as well.

Just wanted you to know, we didn't leave a brotha out! ... And he aiight!

So, holler!

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