Adjusting Vocabulary and Speech Patterns: The ‘hood vs. academia

Posted: May 24, 2016 in Language Use, Livin' in the USA
Tags: , ,

I live in what the Arizona Daily Star once described as a “hardscrabble neighborhood.” It’s low income, mostly nonwhite (about 65% Mexican, 15% black, 20% white, by my entirely unscientific estimate). A lot of the Mexican folks are first generation, and they’ve had no more education than is average with poor people in Mexico. The half of the black folks who are American had the typical shitty education black, poor people receive in the land of the free. The East African refugees (mostly Somalis) never had a chance education-wise.

Me? I’m from a neighborhood somewhat like this one (poorer, but almost all white), in Phoenix. I’m the only one in the family — out to second cousins — ever to earn even a bachelor’s degree. So I know how to fit in here. I also know how to fit in with people from academic backgrounds.

Here, I have one neighbor I’ve known for 20 years who doesn’t speak English, so we speak Spanish except when I can’t think of a specific term and we lapse into Spanglish. Beyond that, with my Mexican neighbors who speak English — who automatically lapse into English — and with my American black neighbors, I lapse into Spanglish and ‘hood patterns — “Hey bro! ¿Que paso?” to cite a  stereotyped example. Also double negatives — “ain’t got no,” etc. I tend to use single- and double-syllable words, not multi-syllabic latinate words with my neighbors.

Before you condemn me as phony for this, please realize that these patterns are entirely natural to me, and that I fall into them unconsciously. (And frankly, I think double negatives make more sense than the typical  “correct” English usage.)

When I’m with the monthly atheist meetup group, which consists mostly of  people with advanced degrees, I lapse into “correct” English — being very careful about verb tenses, number, etc.  I also do the same when, rarely, I’m with other folks with advanced degrees in other contexts.

With the political groups I’m involved with, and also with the bands I play with, I tend toward the ‘hood side of my vocabulary. I don’t mean this as an insult to them; they consist of people from widely varying backgrounds, and  I really don’t want to seem like I’m showing anybody up.

I’d really — very much — like to hear from others, especially latino or black folks, who fit into two or three worlds: How do you adjust your vocabulary and speech patterns? And how do you feel about it?



  1. John Paul says:

    While I’m neither black nor Latino, I certainly can relate to the language disparity you’re touching on here. I come from a very working class family living in an industrial town, in a lower-income sector of that town. None of my family – neither immediate nor distant – had graduated from high school, not to mention post-secondary education. I’m currently in the final stage of a PhD (in philosophy), and find I have a difficult time fitting into either of my life’s cultural niches. And like you, it’s not a them vs. us thing – not a thing where I believe one to be either higher or lower than the other. It’s simply that there are sorts of unwritten codes of societal conduct and communication in each of these pockets, each with their own ‘rules’ and expectations. It’s confusing to be caught in the middle of it, and to not come off as ‘putting on airs’ or some such thing.


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