2003   AUGUST 16   #228

Western Electric - Dialect of the Black American (excerpt)

On March 3, 2003, The 365 Days Project featured a 1963 recording of computer speech, produced by Bell Telephone Labs. In 1970, the phone company published another record about speech though the purpose of this one is somewhat nebulous. The record jacket states:

All of us are familiar with the sounds of foreign tongues. We enjoy hearing the rolling softness of French, for example, or the guttural strength of German. All of us also have heard the speech of the black American. But we rarely grant it the same consideration we extend automatically to the languages of other lands. The black dialect, as seen by the linguist, is the subject of this record...At a time when interracial communication and understanding are assuming enormous importance, this record hopes to help explain for listeners of all races what black dialect is and how it functions. The intent is, simply, information. The difficult goal is to let us all, as we talk with one another, hear with open ears.

In this excerpt, we hear a young black man graduating and being congratulated by his teacher. The narrator explains to us that because of the young man's speech, he probably won't get a good job. We next hear him being interviewed for a job. The young graduate appears not to know how to spell his own name on his job application. The employer offers him a job in the company's "mechanical department". The young man balks at the offer and says he wants an office job with his name on his desk. The employer tries to reason with him, but the young man won't hear of a job as a mechanic. He is shown the door, and then is heard back on the street with his buddies, calling the employer a "blue-eyed devil" and "just another honky".

This record was produced for schools and libraries. I can just imagine a group of white teens listening to this in their school library in, say 1971, and laughing their heads off - playing it again, and laughing even harder. Well, the album's producer Paul K. Winston, and director Jeffrey Berman tell us that "the intent is, simply, information". It seems to me another albeit unstated intent was a bit of mean-spirited comedy at the expense of the very people they were purporting to help.

- Stormy Hunter, http://tstormhunter.iuma.com/

TT-4:39 / 3.2MB / 96kbps 44.1khz
from "Dialect Of The Black American"
Western Electric Record #MG-202784 (1970)


(Image courtesy of Stormy Hunter)

Chris Frame writes:
I just wanted to point out a mistake: "The young graduate appears not to know how to spell his own name on his job application." This is not the case. Of course he knows how to spell his name and I'm sure it was not the intent of the record producers to imply that he could not. If you listen to it again, you will notice that the applicant did not include his middle name on the application, so the employer is filling it in. Because the young black man does not pronounce it in a way that the employer easily understands, the employer tries to phonetically spell it based on the applicant's pronunciation. So, if you don't mind me saying, your interpretation is wrong, and I would like to see you change it, if you don't mind. What I also find interesting is this: "It seems to me another albeit unstated intent was a bit of mean-spirited comedy at the expense of the very people they were purporting to help." I find this a bit annoying and a very, very politically correct thing to say. Are you trying to say that black speech patterns don't exist, or that they really don't affect a black person's ability to get a job. An employer may want to do the 'right thing' and give everyone an equal chance, but even today, if someone comes in and talks in that ghetto dialect, it's going to throw people off. It's the same today as it was 30 years ago. One may call it mean spirited, but do you not think that it is based in truth? Why are we afraid to point these things out. Well, I've said my piece. Thank you for your time.