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Getting Susan Rice’s Language Right

April 4, 2017

At Language Log, linguist blogger Mark Liberman writes a quick post in which he starts in with a clip “[f]rom Susan Rice’s interview today with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC.”

The clip is to show what he describes merely as “an interesting example of emphatic multiple negation:”

I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would.

Susan Rice’s language may be more fully described as translanguaging. Ofelia García and her colleagues describe that this way in their article, “Clarifying translanguaging and deconstructing named languages: A perspective from linguistics“:

Translanguaging is the deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages.

Susan Rice is deploying a full repertoire of linguistic skills.

In this very context, she is speaking political standard American English and personal person-centered African American English.

Oftentimes, these have to be segregated. In the history of the US, unfortunately, and in the present, just as unfortunately, these two languages must be kept apart, as different, as unequal. And so the speaker and the audience are taught to believe that one language is better than than the other and/or that different contexts demand that the two be spoken separately. For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the white children Jem and Scout call out their black housekeeper Calpurnia for using different languages in different places; and the three together denigrate “colored-folk’s talk” as not “talkin’ right”:

Calpurnias.church.talk.To.Kill.A.Mockingbird

But June Jordan might take exception to this sort of segregation. And when talking of what she calls Standard English and what she calls Black English, June Jordan gives examples of the latter as characterized by “person-centered values” through “the delivery of voice.”

She speaks of translating between the two and of the consequences to punctuate the “person-centered” characteristics:

You cannot “translate” instances of Standard English preoccupied with abstraction or with nothing/nobody evidently alive, into Black English. That would warp the language into uses antithetical to the guiding perspective of its community of users. Rather you must first change those Standard English sentences, themselves, into ideas consistent with the person-centered assumptions of Black English.

Notice her own translanguaging. She uses “nothing/nobody” as a Black English part of her essay also written in Standard English.

When we read her essay, we also see how the characteristics of Black English she enumerates include features much richer than simply “emphatic multiple negation”:

8. In general, if you wish to say something really positive [using Black English], try to formulate the idea using emphatic negative structure.

S.E.: He’s fabulous.
B.E.: He bad.

9. Use double or triple negatives for dramatic emphasis.

S.E.: Tina Turner sings out of this world.
B.E.: Ain nobody sing like Tina

She has already explained the sense of Black English as person-centered, as less abstract than Standard American English must be:

Our language devolves from a culture that abhors all abstraction, or anything tending to obscure or delete the fact of the human being who is here and now/the truth of the person who is speaking or listening. Consequently, there is no passive voice construction possible in Black English. For example, you cannot say, “Black English is being eliminated.” You must say, instead, “White people eliminating Black English.” The assumption of the presence of life governs all of Black English. Therefore, overwhelmingly, all action takes place in the language of the present indicative. And every sentence assumes the living and active participation of at least two human beings, the speaker and the listener.

And the Black English title of her essay is a tribute. It’s a tribute to a person whom she describes in her essay. It’s “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future of Willie Jordan.” The “nobody” in this much-Standard American English essay translanguages into the personal.

When Susan Rice speaks to emphasize, then, she is translanguaging. She’s emphasizing, in Standard-English Black-English, how very respectful and how very personal she must be in her duties as a public servant, the 24th United States National Security Advisor of the US:

I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would.

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