Linguistic rebellion and coming of age

Yesterday my friend @JosetteLB asked if people would be interested in blogging together, a sort of blog challenge to share stories of linguistic rebellion.

Earlier today another friend @kevchanwow joined the challenge. 

Another voice recently added: @JohnPfrodresher.

Click their names to read their stories!

We are all interested in hearing your stories, too.

I’m not sure how I feel about sharing these stories. Perhaps you will think differently of me after reading. Perhaps I’m not the person you thought I was. 


I speak standard American English. I’ve spoken it all my life. It has never occurred to me to rebel against it. Who I am and how I think is in part a product of this, and through the stories in this post I hope to show how I see the connection between linguistic intolerance, linguistic policy and linguistic rebellion.

When I was a child of 7 or 8, one of our neighbors across the street was an older Mexican couple. They were very nice people. But I wouldn’t talk to them. They had accents that were hard to understand. And, unforgivably, they called me “Anna” – the Spanish pronunciation of my name. What I did not understand at the time was that this was my first experience with linguistic intolerance – in this case, my own.

The Mexican family was not the only target, nor was I the only guilty party. Flash forward a few years, towards the end of elementary school. Most of the kids who lived in my neighborhood were black. We grew up together, climbed trees together, ran races together, played kickball together, did each other’s hair, had sleepovers.

I remember one day, being up in a tree near Jackie’s house, and talking to her about junior high. She was going at the end of the summer. I had to wait a year. And she told me that we probably couldn’t be friends in junior high. Because our lives would grow apart.

When I got to junior high, I realized what she meant. Looking back, I can see the linguistic rebellion clearly – my friends were under pressure to be “black enough.” Those who weren’t were ostracized for “talking like white people.” I remember my best friend Noelle, coming home crying because people called her an “oreo.” She had to explain to me that students used the word to mean “black on the outside and white on the inside.” She was upset because she was not fitting in with her linguistic community.

In this community linguistic rebellion went two ways: first of all was a large rebellion against the school’s policy of standard English. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I think what happened was this: the majority of students were rebelling against being forced to learn a new dialect to become acceptable to a minority – their teachers and the adults in their lives. They rebelled by ensuring their dialect was the one used within their community. In order to be part of that community, kids had to learn to speak like them. It quickly became the majority dialect in the school. The second form of rebellion, then, were kids like Noelle and a few others who rebelled away from the social dialect towards the standard they had grown up with.

20 years later I have a lot of respect for both of these groups of people, who as young men and women could look in the face of oppressive linguistic policy and choose to fight it by insisting on choosing which dialect they wanted to use. Especially while people like me – their friends – stood silently by, unaffected.

23 years later I have sympathy for the Mexican couple across the road, who were probably quite fluent in English but stymied by intolerance of their dialect. The situation for their linguistic community has only gotten worse in America.

In the end, now that we are adults, the standard language won out. I have grown up, moved overseas, and begun to be appalled by dialect suppression and linguistic oppression where I see it in the world and am deeply ashamed of my intolerant and oblivious young self.

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  • JeroenRoot  On December 30, 2013 at 8:57 am

    What a great read. I really enjoyed your writing style as you recount your experience with this sociolinguistic issue, ‘linguistic rebellion’. Thanks for sharing, Anne!

    • livinglearning  On December 30, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Thanks for reading, Chop. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
      I wonder if you have any linguistic rebellion stories to tell?

  • laurasoracco  On January 6, 2014 at 2:10 am

    Really enjoyed this post. I could picture your friend and neighbors -great story!

    • livinglearning  On January 6, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Do you have a linguistic rebellion story to share?

      • laurasoracco  On January 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm

        …been thinking about it. The topic brings up so many emotions! Would like to write about it soon. We’ll see 😉


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