Found in Translation

How language brings us together—and drives us apart.
A Soviet officer during World War II (RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons)

Around the time I came to The Atlantic, and just after my first book was published, I started seriously doing television and radio for the first time. It was not then uncommon for people to comment on my accent, my syntax, and my all-around need to "Think Of The Children" whenever I spoke. I never came up worrying about any of this. There's a kind of black household where speech is obsessed over, where grandmothers make you deposit a nickel for every "ain't" and "finna," where aunts respond to "Where they at?" with "right behind that preposition."

I actually never understood that one. 

When I started writing it was as an MC. After Rakim, my greatest influences were the rhythms inherent in the common speech all around me. There were drums, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, tucked into these voices, and I have tried since those days as a five-foot MC to bring those same drums to anything I write. I never had much reason to "speak proper," as very few poets, and very few print journalists, cared about such things. In general, I thought that what was "proper" on the basketball court was not what was "proper" in a job interview, and that was not what was "proper" for writers, like me, and that, still, would never be proper for the lawyer approaching the bench. I believe my son should learn "standard English," much for the same reason I believe he should learn "standard French" and "standard Spanish." On the whole, knowledge beats ignorance every time. 

The other day, I watched an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee for the first, and regrettably last, time. (Jerry, how I used to love you.) The episode featured the Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh. At one point Elmaleh said to Seinfeld, "I don't understand baseball and I know you would never explain me how it works." In many African-American homes, Gad would have been out of a nickel. I found it amusing. In French, to ask someone to explain something, you can say, "Expliquez-moi"—which literally reads in English as "Explain me." There was nothing wrong about Elmaleh's actual thoughts, nor the message he was trying to convey. He was not speaking bad English, he was speaking in French grammar and using English words.  And this—like a man driving to the hoop in coat and tails—was amusing. 

This has been one of the small great lessons in studying French. People don't so much speak bad English, or bad "any language," as they resort to their familiar clothes, activity be damned. When the Ukrainian says "Why always Boris?" instead of "Why do they always call me Boris?" he is not being immoral, nor corrupting the children, so much as he is telling you something about his native tongue. And when the African-American tells you, "My wife been done gone" he too, is carrying other languages, though we are not yet sure which. But packaging matters to us, and language is but a specimen of this fact. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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