Code Switching in William Wells Brown's Clotel
Everyone has various styles of speaking and various ranges of vocabulary that they utilize depending upon with whom they speak. This concept, known as code switching, portrays an integral part of our lives in today’s society. The fact that different groups of people speak in different ways necessitates the use of code switching. One would not speak to a group of high school students in the manner that one would speak to a scholar, or speak to a prison inmate in the same regard that one would speak with the President of the United States. Speaking in standard American English and then in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, portrays the most prominent use of code switching in today’s society, especially among American youths. Today, people utilize code switching to associate better amongst a group of people. In William Wells Brown’s Clotel, code switching plays an important role in the escape of two slaves, outwitting a train employee, and simply showing the difference between a slave’s behavior with other slaves and the slave’s behavior in the presence of his owner.
People typically change their way of speaking in a manner that is advantageous for themselves. The narrator portrays the advantage of code switching in the way that Clotel and William escape slavery. Clotel and William impersonate a gentleman and slave leaving Mississippi. William does not represent the typical uneducated slave; he “was a tall, full-bodied Negro, whose very countenance beamed with intelligence” (141). William speaks more eloquently than the average slave, portrayed when he tells Clotel, “There, Miss Clotel, you said if you had the means you would leave this place; there is money enough to take you to England where you will be free” (141). However, to escape, William portrays the stereotypical slave and instead of speaking in the manner that he normally would, William uses the language used by the slaves to speak in a way that the white slave-owners expect from a slave. At one point, William tells the other servants, “‘I don’t like dees steamboats no how’” (143). William keeps up appearances by speaking in a way expected from slaves and by doing so, William avoids suspicion from not only the whites aboard the ship, but also from the black slaves. By speaking in a manner different from usual, William utilizes the concept of code switching and in turn, he and Clotel successfully land in a free state.
William again uses the concept of code switching to his advantage when riding in the luggage compartment of the train. The train attendee asks William to pay...