Talking proper: what in the world is code-switching?
The first time I ever felt conscious about the way I spoke was in my first year of university when someone corrected me, and I had never felt so insulted in my life.
In the moment I was laughed at and told ‘you should say those shoes, not them shoes’ I was aghast and mortified. I was angry, but more than that I felt ashamed. It brought me to the realisation that I was already ashamed of the way I spoke and the way all the people from where I come from speak too. I was angry at myself too for letting myself slip-up. How you speak is, incorrectly, bound up with notions of how much money you have and how educated you are, and I was embarrassed.
I had always been told I spoke very ‘nicely’, I’m from a North Kent suburb where the East London Cockney accent seems to have migrated to. I would sometimes say ‘me’ instead of ‘my’ and drop the g’s off of my ‘ings’ but for the most part I had a ‘posh voice’ for where I am from. This was never something I consciously controlled, it just seemed to happen. This is called code-switching, I didn’t even know it had a name until recently. Your accent and mode of language changes dependent on whatever situation you are in. Turns out I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember.
In interviews and when meeting new people I will put on my most refined voice but I don’t always know I am doing it. I know why I am doing it; for a means of acceptance and to be taken seriously. In recent years it is something I have become more conscious of, especially when people who know me well comment on it all the time. It is amplified in an academic environment when it can sometimes seem that you’re the only one who didn’t go to private school. Many times I opened my mouth, accidentally dropped the ending off a word and felt myself morph into the Artful Dodger before everyone’s eyes.
The correction of how people speak is not only rude and classist, in many instances it is downright racist. I am aware my situation as an educated white woman who sometimes slips into her home-town accent is vastly different from black people whose voices and Ebonics are routinely mocked before being appropriated by white people for humour or fashion. The erasure of culture is easily done through attacking a vernacular and instilling shame in people. The false insinuation that not speaking ‘properly’ somehow makes you unintelligent is gentrification for the voice.
Code-switching is a strange thing and I think it is naturally for us all to do it dependent on situation. However it is clear for some stratas of society it is hugely important. In many ways it’s a skill; a teacher of mine once said it would do me wonders in terms of social mobility. But why should it? The notion that one mode of speaking is superior to another should not exist. I am still scared that ‘speaking common’ could lose me a job at an interview because it just doesn’ professional. These outdated ideas are toxic to society but they are so deeply rooted it seems unclear how they could be eradicated.
As I entered my twenties I began to feel more comfortable with myself and definitely feel more at ease in using my ‘real voice’ as my main one. As well as becoming a big fan of Chas and Dave, I have begun to draw strength from my commonness as something to be proud of. I am at my most common when I am elated or angry, for me it is my language of passion.
I have no doubt I’ll be even more accepting of it as time goes by- I’ll be dancing off toward the sunrise with Fagin before I know it.