In To Kill a Mockingbird, why does Calpurnia speak differently in the Finch household than she speaks among neighbors at church?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The children notice the difference in Calpurnia's speech at church and ask her about it when they are walking home. Cal says, "Well in the first place I'm black--," but this isn't a sufficient explanation for Jem who protests that she doesn't have to talk "that way" because she knows better. Cal continues that if she spoke differently from her friends at church "They'd think I was puttin' on airs to beat Moses."

Scout still doesn't understand: "But Cal, you know better." To this, Calpurnia replies in a way that shows her character and wisdom:

It's not necessary to tell all you know. It's not ladylike--in the second place, folks don't like to have somebody around knowin' more than they do. It aggravates 'em. You're not gonna change any of them by talkin' right, they've got to want to learn themselves, and when they don't want to learn there's nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.

Going to church with Calpurnia made Scout aware for the first time that Cal "led a modest double life" and, also, that she had taught her son Zeebo to read from the two books she owned, the Bible and a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries, once given to her by Scout's Grandfather Finch. 


Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What Calipurnia does is sometimes referred to as "code-switching."  Our brains are designed so that we  adjust our speech to be closer to the speech of the person we are talking to, and often do so without even thinking about it.  This makes communication better for everyone because it is easier to speak to someone who uses the same words, expressions, accent, and so on.  If two speakers make these little adjustments, each is trying to communicate better and usually both are more successful.  As Ms. Charleston pointed out, we do not speak in exactly the same way to everyone we encounter.  I do not speak the same way to my students as I do to my husband or children, for example, or the same way I speak to someone next to me on the bus. You may notice that some people do not make these little adjustments, and that they do not communicate very effectively.  Have you ever had a speaker at your school whom you felt was just not speaking your language?  There is a good reason for your feeling that way - he or she was not speaking your language!

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, the answer for To Kill a Mockingbird's Calpurnia would be the same as the answer for absolutely anyone in our society (even today).  All of us behave differently in our workplace than we do at our church or at social gatherings, as they have very different implications.  Calpurnia also has the additional "job" of being a mother-figure in the Finch household.  The wonderful thing about Calpurnia is that no matter where she hangs her hat, she is always respectful.  What a credit to dear Calpurnia!

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Calpurnia is "bilingual." She speaks the black dialect when she is among neighbors and friends, and Standard English when she is working for her white employer. Will Smith had a very interesting interview a few years back in Vanity Fair in which he described himself as bilingual because he speaks Standard English in business settings and black dialect among his family and friends. He said that he is teaching his children to do the same thing.

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is interesting that even now, in the 21st century, people switch codes depending on who they are speaking with, and it's not just blacks who do this, although they might be the most noticeable examples. Remember the presidential primaries when Hillary Clinton was in the South and the commentators pointed out her tendency to drawl when she was speaking to Southern audiences. 

zumba96 | Student

When she is with people of the same race she tries to speak like them even though she is intelligent enough to speak proper english. She may have been doing that to fit in with her people of her race in order to become similar to the group once she visits them. 

epollock | Student

Shakespeare said that we "wear many masks." I am sure there is not an individual who doesn't speak differently with different groups. I don't see how that is possible nowadays with so many clubs, groups, etc.  I don't think I would speak the same way as I would with members of this website. It is natural for people to speak in a comfortable manner in which the group has similarities.  It binds the group for better cohesion.

gatetochrist | Student

In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia is a black woman that works for the Finch's family. Calpurnia is approached by Jeremy, who asks Cal why she speaks in "black" despite her "knowing better than that."

To answer the question, one must understand the social background: Maycomb County in the early 20th century. Maycomb is a small, old town in the south, where the black-white discrimination problem was severe; a white man during this period, could have easily gotten away with raping a black woman or lynching a black boy, even if he had been caught and sent to court. This social background of prejudice is why Calpurnia wants to avoid any problems between two worlds. In order to do so, she blends in, adapting the "black" language when she's with her church neighbors and speaking "white" english when she's at the Finch's.

She also uses "black" with her church neighbors so that she doesn't intimidate her peers. People dislike others when they know or have something that they don't, and naturally if Cal used "white" english at church, she would have been thought to be a snob and traitor to African Americans. Therefore, she tries her best to blend in, with language being a significant part of her effort.

Language is a significant part of identity and culture; language is what changes and distinguishes boundaries. Calpurnia speaks differently as she moves across the boundaries so that she can live in dual cultures without dissidence.

stoch16 | Student

As you may have read, Cal is a black woman who works for Atticus, like making dinner and keeping the children from eating other foods, after his wife dies. She speaks out more to the children then she does to Atticus. As Cal is just a regular woman, she is just pretty much a black. And that is why Cal speaks diffrently then all the other people in the neiborhood do.

keith1234 | Student

calpurnia is black so she speaks different to black people than white cause that is how they know you

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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