Native Tongues

Native Tongues

Simanique Moody, assistant professor, Linguistics Program, Department of English

A Brooklyn College professor explores African-American English, and finds a campus where the cultural and linguistic diversity speaks her language.

Simanique Moody is an assistant professor and sociolinguist who speaks multiple languages, including French, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, but specializes in African-American language and the socio-historical contexts that have shaped it, particularly its roots and current practice in Georgia, where she grew up in a small town called Waycross. Some of her current research looks at the influence of a unique group of slave descendants along and off the coast of the lower Atlantic, called Gullah Geechee, who speak a distinct Creole that is a blend of African and European languages.

Moody started in fall 2019, and just as she was settling in on campus and starting to set up her lab, the pandemic hit. But that hasn’t stopped the former New York City private- and charter-school teacher and TESOL instructor from launching a new course and making connections on a campus that boasts of 94 different languages spoken.

She spoke with B the Brooklyn College Magazine to talk about how her current work circles back to her childhood, what teaching and researching in such a linguistically rich community brings to her work, and some of the interesting stories of the lexicon she studies, like what some Black people really mean when they say they need to get their kitchens straightened out.

What are some of your earliest memories around language, and what drove your interest in it?

SM: My great-grandmother comes from the Geechee community off the coast of Georgia. I remember as a child I was very nervous around her because I didn’t understand what she was saying. When an older person talks to you, you have to respond quickly. I would be nervous because I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what and I didn’t want to get reprimanded for moving too slowly. So I always looked at my mother, kind of like: What am I supposed to do? And she’d say, “Go in the kitchen and get her a cup of water,” or whatever. I have always remembered that. Later, different things in my life brought me back to that.

In my town growing up, it was pretty much Black and White, so whenever I would hear someone speaking a different language, I was fascinated. Once, my great aunt was staying in a hotel and I remember that the owners were Indian. I asked them how to greet someone in their language and they told me they were Gujarati. I always remembered that, and then everywhere I would go, if I met someone who said they were also Gujarati, I would start off with “kem cho.” And they would respond with a big smile. At my elementary school, we had a woman from South Korea working there. I learned how to say hello in her language, and every time I would see her at school, I would greet her. I always liked how people responded so positively. They were happy or surprised that someone knew something about their language, particularly in such a rural town in the South.

What can we learn about a people and a culture from studying their language?

SM: Oftentimes, you can tell their histories of contact through the words that have been borrowed in the language and the time period that they’ve been borrowed. Sometimes, some of the borrowings can give you insight into the nature of the contact, whether it was one of domination or something of a more equal exchange. If the contact between the groups is intense enough, then the structure of a language itself can change and incorporate speech sounds and grammatical features of another language. For instance, there are words and sounds in English borrowed from French that came from the Norman conquest when speakers of French were in contact with people in England.

Describe the two research projects you are working on.

SM: I have one small project, which is looking at something known as bidialectalism. Just like you have bilingualism—someone who knows or speaks two languages—you can have people who know or speak more than one dialect. I’m trying to devise a way to work with students who have struggled academically in large part because they’re not able to recognize the differences between the different dialects of English that they’re in contact with on a daily basis. I’m trying to figure out how to present this to students so that they’re able to determine when to use one system and not the other. And I’m trying to do that in a way that’s sensitive, that doesn’t leave a student feeling demoralized or disrespected somehow, or that something is wrong with the way they speak at home. The way society is currently structured, you have to master the standardized one. But you don’t need to lose what makes you unique either. It’s good to have facility in both. There are studies that show that bidialectal speakers possess many of the cognitive benefits associated with being bilingual. It’s a skill to be celebrated, not to be frowned upon.

My other work is looking at the history of the development of African-American language in Georgia. I’m looking at how African-American English and Gullah Geechee developed as well as other varieties that haven’t been described. There is also a language known as Afro-Seminole Creole that is not well studied which is heavily influenced by Gullah Geechee. There were self-liberated Africans who went down to Florida and joined up with the Seminoles, but their language is no longer actively spoken in Georgia. I’m looking through lots of old documents like narrative accounts that have been written and ads that were posted for fugitives from slavery that would sometimes list the languages they spoke. I’m trying to give a more complete picture of African Americans in Georgia—how their language developed and how it was different from what happened in New York or Virginia or some of the other colonies.

You pitched a new class at Brooklyn College on African-American English that just started this year. How has that gone?

SM: It looks at the history, the educational context, and the linguistic structure of African-American English. I wasn’t sure that students would be interested in it. I knew students are interested in hip-hop music and Black culture, but would they be serious enough to take it and really go there with it? Surprisingly, I had to issue some overtallies to accommodate additional students. Some of the students have explained to me that they feel very proud to finally be able to take a course about their language so they can learn about the way they speak and why that is, the historical context, that connection to Africa, the connection to the Caribbean. And seeing the complexity of it, that it’s not just a bunch of slang, there’s a grammatical structure to master.

What kinds of things do you talk about in the class?

SM: There are some words in the African-American English lexicon that you find in English, but they’re used in a different way. One example we were looking at recently would be the kitchen. So of course we know a kitchen is a room in the house to cook in. But the kitchen also refers to that hair at the nape of the neck that can be hard to manage.

I’ve wondered where that term came from before.

SM: So there’s the history with the straightening comb where you would put the hot comb on the stove in the kitchen. Also, it’s thought you need to keep your kitchen tidy and neat, and that area of the hair is something we often have to work on to keep tidy and neat. So, we would look at the word’s pronunciation, what grammatical class the term falls in, what is the linguistic environment that it occurs in—does it occur at the end of sentences, is it followed by a preposition? And then, of course, the meaning.

I can imagine those conversations get interesting with Brooklyn College students.

SM: I love having students from all linguistic backgrounds. The particular words we’re looking at in class now are called ideophones, and you find them in some Asian languages, you definitely find them in some African languages and in certain languages spoken in the Caribbean, but you don’t find them as much in the European languages that were in contact with the languages of people of African descent, in the context of the transatlantic slave trade.

There are students who have insights to bring from all kinds of languages. We draw on their experiences as well. The types of discussions that take place, I think that’s something that having a diversity of students with different cultures, different languages, different experiences, that contributes to a wonderful classroom experience.

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