The King's English


My friend's 12-year-old daughter is going through that awkward stage between childhood and adolescence when peer pressure is the paramount sociological fact of life. She is a precocious child, a gifted dancer and, like her mother, a talented raconteur.

The other day she was regaling us during supper with stories about how disgusting boys can be. Some of these tales, I'm afraid, frankly approached the scatological, which perhaps is a predictable hazard of dealing with a voluble pre-teen.

Yet she delivered these little vignettes in such a charming, well-modulated tone of voice that her mother and I were compelled to join in laughing at her inventions despite their obviously questionable taste.

So I was somewhat nonplused when, a few hours later, we happened to stop by the home of a relative who lives on a lively block just off East North Avenue.

It was an unseasonably warm evening and there were lots of people sitting on front steps chatting with neighbors, watching their children play in the street and trying to catch a bit of breeze -- an altogether typical local scene, but one which our Precocious One, raised in the leafy greenbelts of Northeast Baltimore, nevertheless found faintly exotic.

The setting produced remarkable metamorphosis in the darling child. After a momentary hesitation during which she seemed completely at a loss for words, sure enough her mouth began running again. But this time what came out was a richly colored new argot expertly inflected by the rhythms of the streets.

I gazed on the little prodigy with open astonishment. Where on earth had she learned to talk like that? Maybe this was her idea of how poor folks carried on a conversation, but the whole performance struck me as slightly embarrassing. Did the people she was addressing sense the same false note I detected?

No matter, since they were gracious enough to pretend nothing was amiss even if they did notice. But afterward, on the way home, I couldn't help remarking on her sudden change in demeanor.

"That's how all the kids talk at school," she replied nonchalantly, "so of course I know how to do it, too."

"I thought you were supposed to speak in standard English at school," I said. "That's certainly not the way your teacher talks, I hope."

"Not the teachers, the kids," she answered, as if explaining a perfectly obvious fact to a rather dim younger sibling. "You start trying to talk like a teacher outside of class and everybody's gonna think you're stuck-up or something."

She seemed to think this observation sufficed to end the discussion. And I was inclined to let it drop, too, but her mother, who had been quiet 'til then, decided to pursue the matter a bit further.

"But why should you let other people determine how you express yourself?" she demanded. "You don't talk that way at home, and you certainly know it's not correct English. Do you have to do everything the way your friends do, even when you know it's wrong?"

"Oh, Ma," the child groaned. "It's not wrong, it's just different. Don't you know 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'?" From the back seat of the car, she emitted a little snicker of satisfaction at her own cleverness.

"And besides, you do it too!" she cried. "I heard you talking back there and that's not the way you talk normally, either."

Mom was trumped and she knew it, much as she hated the thought.

For indeed, I had noticed a subtle softening of the vowels, a certain languid shift in the cadences of her sentences, a slight but unmistakable liquid timbre enter her voice as she traded gossip and bye-the-byes with the people on the stoops.

"Well," she finally said, "it's one thing for me to lapse every once in a while, but it's not the same for you. I don't want you pretending to be someone you aren't, I want you to be you and I want you to be proud of who you are and not think people won't accept you just because you talk proper English."

The Precocious One was unmoved by this argument, however.

"I am being me," she said. "Just because I don't talk the same way all the time doesn't mean I'm trying to be somebody else. We black people talk all kinda ways -- like dis and like dat and like . . .

"Oh, hush up," her mother snapped. "Now you're just being silly."

"No, I'm not," the girl cried. "I'm just being myself. Why should I be ashamed of that?" And in a way, I suppose, she was right -- as usual.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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