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Language as Prestige

Crossing Over

Language Crossing
— Borrowing Identity

Linguists study "crossing" to understand how and why individuals mimic the speech of another group. Borrowing another language variety is often an expression of identity. Cecelia Cutler explains.
Read Summary.

In his 1995 book Crossing: Language and Ethnicity Among Adolescents, Ben Rampton describes language crossing as the practice of using a language variety that belongs to another group. Crossing includes a wide range of sociolinguistic practices such as the "outgroup use of prestigious minority codes" (for example, white suburban teenagers using African-American English speech markers to affiliate with hip hop culture) and pejorative secondary foreigner talk (the mocking use of a foreign accent to convey distance from a particular ethnic group). It also includes practices such as “marking,” copying a language variety out of context to index a type of person who is different from the speaker and/or intended hearers (Mitchell-Kernan, Morgan).

Rampton’s book describes how groups of multiracial adolescents in a British working-class community mix their use of Creole, Panjabi and Asian English. Rampton found that language crossing, in many instances, constitutes an anti-racist practice and is emblematic of young people striving to redefine their identities. The young people he studied used this mixed code to contest racial boundaries and assert a new “de-racinated” ethnicity.

Language crossing evokes a sense of movement across social and ethnic boundaries

Although, as shown in this example, crossing is not usually an all-out claim to another ethnic identity, it can evoke a distinct sense of movement across social or ethnic boundaries. Most often it involves momentary, ritualized instances of outgroup language use. Rampton describes crossing as part of a complex process of self-assembly in which speakers signal their orientation towards the different voices they adopt. It is concerned with “secondary representations of people, groups and languages” and “the dynamics of the speakers’ orientation to the voice, the language and the social imagery they’re evoking” (Rampton 1996).

Tribe Talkin’

Sociolinguists, anthropologists and cultural theorists study the phenomenon of language crossing (although they may not agree on what to call it) to understand how and why individuals are motivated to employ the language variety of another group. They are also interested in how language and other types of social behavior reveal changes in how people construct their identities. Some scholars have suggested that the globalization of culture gives young people a greater number of choices. Essentially they can pick and choose from a range of commodified ethnic style markers in the clothes they wear, the music to which they listen and their language, forming what Baumann calls “Neo Tribes.” These neo tribes differ markedly from the more limited traditional family — and community-based identities and language styles available to people in the past.

Language crossing can be positive or negative

As mentioned above, one example of language crossing would be when white suburban teenagers use features of African-American English to signal their affiliation with hip hop culture. This type of language crossing is generally positive because it expresses identification with hip hop culture. Jane Hill’s discussion of “Mock Spanish” or the purposeful misuse of Spanish (such as when Arnold Schwarzenegger says “No problemo” in the film “Terminator”) is a negative example of language crossing. “No problemo” not only reflects incorrect gender marking on the noun (it should be “problema”) but also is not an expression that native Spanish speakers would use. Hill claims that Anglos in the Southwest and California use Mock Spanish as a racist strategy to distance themselves from Latinos.

Crossing can also function as what’s called a “mitigating discourse strategy” — a way to ease tension. In the following example, a computer trainer in New York City is training an investment bank employee to use new software. The software is not functioning properly and the trainee begins to complain. The trainer, who is not responsible for the problem and has established a good rapport with the trainee, crosses into a blue-collar Brooklyn accent.

Trainee: (somewhat annoyed) So you’re saying they didn’t install the program properly?

Trainer: (with an affected Brooklyn working-class accent) Yeah, you gotta problem wit’ that?

The trainer uses the Brooklyn working-class accent to distance himself from those who installed the software incorrectly. His reply indexes a widely understood stereotype in New York City of the “tough guy” who does not appreciate being corrected and has little intention of addressing the problem. If it gets a laugh, it helps to mitigate the frustration of the situation.

Hark! Do I Hear a Hip Hop?

My research investigates the construction of identity among white, middle-class young people who affiliate with hip hop. Most of the young people I have studied live in predominantly white middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods in and around New York City. Yet they affiliate with a cultural form that has its origins in urban black working-class communities in, for instance, the borough of the Bronx (Potter 1995, Samuels 1991). It is difficult to generalize about the class origins of hip hop because quite a few rap artists are college-educated and middle class, but there is a general sense that it originates largely in “the street” — read black urban ghetto (Alim). Their distance from its origins poses some psychological challenges for white middle-class hip hoppers who are socially and physically removed from hip hop’s creative and ideological space.

band member, athletic mic league

Significantly, white hip hoppers draw on a language style that is clearly derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) — a variety with which they have little direct contact, and that is stigmatized in mainstream U.S. society. The variety of speech that they are targeting is highly influenced by hip hop culture and contains a wide range of hip hop “slang” terms in addition to pronunciation and grammar that are specific to the speech of young urban African-American hip hoppers.   

White hip hoppers’ exposure to this language takes place principally through electronic media, such as MTV, rap music CDs and Black Entertainment Television (BET), rather than through direct face-to-face contact with native speakers. In effect, white hip hoppers’ speech can be seen as a performance of African-American English speech. Furthermore, many aspects of white hip hoppers’ personal style, gestures, ways of walking and even attitudes are informed by their conceptions of blackness. My preliminary research (Cutler) examines the speech of a white upper-middle class teenager from New York City whom I call “Mike,” whose language, dress style and attitude revealed a deep psychological investment in the “gangsta rapper” image. In many ways, Mike exemplifies many of the young people I targeted in my research: He comes from an economically privileged family, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and was drawn to a cultural form almost diametrically opposed to his own in terms of class and opportunities.

Mike’s speech was an approximation of African-American English only with respect to phonology, lexicon and prosody — a pattern noted by William Labov. I began observing Mike’s language practices in 1993 when he was 13. Around that time, he began to identify quite strongly with hip hop culture: He wore baggy jeans, a reversed baseball cap and name-brand sneakers, and developed a taste for rap music. Mike became part of a growing cohort of white, well-to-do teenagers referred to as “prep school gangsters” in the popular press (Sales). At around the same time, he began to change the way he spoke, which initially appeared to be a form of “crossing” as described by Rampton (1995).

At first, Mike’s linguistic efforts to employ this language were rather fleeting and tentative, but eventually his casual linguistic style began to reflect the influence of African-American English phonology, prosody and hip hop slang. One incident in particular marks an early attempt to imitate this speech style. During a phone conversation with his best friend, Mike — at age 13—made a quick conversational repair to a widely recognized vernacular African-American English form: “I gotta ask, I mean aks [æks] my mom.”

Most white hip hoppers engage in crossing because they have not acquired AAE

My research also shows that most white hip hoppers are indeed engaging in language crossing because they have not acquired African-American English in any real sense of the word. Like the young people Rampton studied, they draw on a set of widely recognized and socially salient linguistic features of another speech variety to stylize their speech. In the following example, we can see some of the AAVE features tapped by white hip hoppers. There is an example of invariant “be,” an aspectual marker in African-American English that signals a habitual or repetitive action (Rickford). We also see an example of copula absence (I don’t know what they Ø talkin’ about). Another point of interest is the speaker’s use of ain’t — a feature of AAVE and many other vernacular varieties of English. Finally, we see a typical hip hop discourse marker — “you know what I’m sayin’” — that draws interlocutors into the conversation.  We’ll close with an extended example of this type of speech.
PJ:People — people be callin’ me a wannabe, but I don't know what they Ø talkin’ about, you know. I'm just doing my thing. I'm just handlin’ my business. What I do ain't nobody's business, you know what I'm sayin’, except for mine. I handle my own. That's what I'm about. You know, what I'm about ain't no — but, hey, I'm — I'm handlin’ my own. You know, I'm livin’ my life the way I want to live. Ain't nobody got to tell me nothin’, you know what I'm sayin’?

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Alim, H. Samy. (in press). “Hip Hop Nation Language.”  Language in the USA. Eds. Ed Finegan & John Rickford. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.
  • Cutler, Cecilia. “Crossing over: white teenagers, hip hop and African American English.” Doctoral Dissertation, New York University, 2002.
  • Hill,-Jane-H.  "Junk Spanish, Covert Racism, and the (Leaky) Boundary between Public and Private Spheres." Pragmatics 5 (1995): 197-212.
  • Labov, William. "Is There a Creole Speech Community?" Theoretical Orientations in Creole Studies. Eds. Albert Valdman and Arnold Highfield.   New York: Academic Press, 1980. 369–388.
  • Mitchell-Kernan, Claudia.  “Signifying and marking: two Afro-American speech acts.” Directions in sociolinguistics.  Eds. John Gumperz and Dell Hymes. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972. 161-179.
  • Morgan, Marcyliena.  “More than a mood of an attitude: Discourse and Verbal Genres in African American English.” African American English.  Eds. Mufwene et al. New York: Routledge, 1998. 251-281.
  • Potter, Russel. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip hop and the politics of post-modernism. State University of New York Press, 1995.
  • Rampton, Ben. Crossing: Language & Ethnicity Among Adolescents New York: Longman, 1995.
  • Rampton, Ben.  “Language Crossing and Ethnicity in Sociolinguistics.” Paper presented at the New Ways of Analyzing Variation conference (NWAV XXV), Las Vegas, 1996.
  • Sales, Nancy J.  “Teenage Gangland.” New York Magazine Vol. 29, No. 48.     16 Dec. 1996: 32-39.
  • Samuels, David. “The Rap on Rap: The ‘Black Music’ That Isn’t Either.”  Rap on rap: straight up talk on hip hop culture.  Ed. Adam Sexton. New York: Delta, 1991. 241-252.

Cecelia Cutler received her Ph.D. from New York University in 2002. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Stony Brook University. Her dissertation explores the speech practices of white middle class hip hoppers in New York City. More generally her research focuses on the sociolinguistic aspects of individuals adopting ways of speaking that differ from those they were raised with. She has published pieces in Popular Music and Society, the Journal of Sociolinguistics, the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, and Language and Education.

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