it's about language, y'all
Today, as I was unpacking boxes I couldn't stop thinking about this amazing piece of writing. Whatever your opinion(s) on gun control or the embedded and sometimes not so subtle ways we talk about race and violence are, the writing in this essay is beyond summary. I hope you read it. Even with all of the emotions I experienced while reading, it got me thinking about the elusive thing writers and writing teachers call voice, the unique perspective of a writer, the way he or she sees and uses language. I kept thinking about rhetorical choices the author makes, the pauses, the internal thoughts he lets us hear; this is what good writers do. I keep thinking about language as I prep for classes, how my own language is often twisted even as it comes out my mouth or fingertips.
When people hear I am an English teacher, they usually make some kind of distorted expression or say things like, "Gah, I hate(d) English," or "I had the worst English teacher" or "I hate reading." But almost inevitably during the conversation, someone will say, "I better watch my grammar/language." This response should not surprise me. Most people probably had an English professor who emphasized grammar or the importance of commas and they can't help but map those experiences to me as I am part of a profession who creates guides for citation and rules for writing. Still, each time this exhange occurs, I become on guard, suddenly aware that perhaps I should "watch" my own language.
The way I speak is not the same way I write. This is most likely true for most people. In writing, I can pause, revise, edit, delete. In speech, once it's out there, it's out there.
I grew up along the Gulf Coast, in small towns and tourist spots in Alabama and Florida, as well as places of which very few have ever heard. I am deeply connected to these places, and their sounds, their language is part of me. But so is the year I spent in Europe, the eight years I've lived in the Midwest, and the very academic and theoretical language of my studies.
Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay, How to Tame a Wild Tongue, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity . I am my language.”
I have written before about being my reactions to being judged for my language. So, when I feel a kind of spotlight on my own language, I am ready to defend those who brush off my speech as redneck or backwoods. Language is not so simple.
If I am my language, where does it place me?
I still refer to grocery carts as buggies but I say pop instead of coke or soda or soft drink. I say "bollocks" as quickly as I say "might could". I use words like sufficient when I could simply say "enough." If I were to talk about these choices rhetorically, I would talk about word choice as if these decisions are intentional, thoughtful. And in writing, they might be. But when I speak, I say what comes to mind first, unfiltered, and too often, unedited. It's as though there is a rolodex of language and whichever word suits the situation at the time, whichever one pops up, is the one my mouth says.
How I say words, the drawl that accompanies each syllable, the way I cannot differentiate between pin and pen, perhaps that is also what Anzaldua means. I am my word choice, yes but I am my accent, created along coastal tides, shaped by Illinois winds, peppered with European idioms and expressions and curse words.
If I could "watch" my language what would I see? What kind of choices do I begin to make when I am made aware someone is listening not to what I say but how I say it? I explain that I am from the South in an attempt to explain my accent, sometimes before a person asks but not always. I am bothered by my own explanation, to be so easily reduced or placed in a box marked language discomforts me.
I am an English teacher, yes. Sure, I notice when people mistakenly use words out of context or make words up, alltogether but I am also Southern, which means I am, typically, much too polite to point out when you should use whom instead of who. It also means I'm going to say y'all, at some point.
I am my language, but my language is layered with all the places I've been, the books I have read, and the people I have known. I am my language. What you say about my language you also say about me. I am constrained by my language, existing within its structures and communicative devices. As are you.
So when we meet and you ask me what I do and I reply that I teach English, spare me the face and the diatribe against your high school or college English teacher. I will try very hard not to notice when you say irregardless instead of regardless. Deal?