I am my language


I've been writing with my students about language and failed communication. As I write and revise along with them, I often try to serve the prompt I'm asking them to work within while also finding my own way into a piece. What follows was inspired by a few posts about language I'd written before but more influenced by wanting to say something about how I sound to others, and the cases where my accent has served as a barrier, but also a point of connection. “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.” Gloria Anzaldua, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”

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 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, considering I am part of a profession who creates guides for citation and rules for writing. Still, each time this exchange occurs, I become on guard, suddenly aware that perhaps I should “watch” my own language.

And If I could, what would I see? What kind of choices do I begin to make when I am made aware someone is listening not only to what I say, but how I say it?

The first time I realized I had an accent, I was visiting my cousins in the Panhandle of Florida. At the time, my family and I lived in a small town in what’s called the Wiregrass of Alabama. Made up heavily of peanut farmers, farm equipment salesmen, grocers, teachers, and bankers, the town was small enough that my brother and I could ride our bikes almost anywhere and we did. The people in town were hard working, generous and lovely people who said things like “fixin’ to” and “livin’ in high cotton.” No one ended their words; they just trailed off one into the next like a stream meeting a river. It never occurred to me that outside of that idyllic community, when I spoke I sounded “funny.”

It wasn’t my cousins who pointed it out, but rather a friend of theirs who was over swimming in their pool. I was lathered in sunscreen, anxious about getting sunburned like I had the summer before. The friend kept asking me to repeat myself. I thought, perhaps, she was hard of hearing until she said, “yeah, you sound weird when you talk.” These kinds of exchanges, though some more polite than others, have happened throughout my life.

On a family vacation in Southern Florida, my brother asked the waitress for water, pronouncing it “wutter”. When she arrived with a bowl of butter, we looked at one another, perplexed. My mother broke the awkward silence by pointing to the empty glass and saying wa-ter in two syllables.

We tell this story to friends and relatives, saying, “can you believe she didn’t understand us?” Everyone nods in agreement and laughs along with us.

When I spent time in Europe after college graduation, I was awash in accents and a completely different kind of language. I thought British accents were incredible. I loved how my friends could identify where someone was from by their accent, and even more when someone stumped them. Everywhere I went, it seemed that how you said something was just as important as what you were saying. I spent hours on the phone with my mother, and grandmothers, soaking in their voices. Realizing, suddenly how alone I felt when no one else sounded like me. Though I have a tendency to absorb accents around me, and even as I learned new pieces of language, I clung to my roots through the cadence of my mother’s drawl, and the way my grandmother said dictionary like “dictionree”.

In a pub one night, a friend kept pulling people over to talk to me.

“Ask her to say something,” she encouraged.

I stood like a test subject, my accent measured against the local way of speaking. The longer this went on, the more uncomfortable I felt until finally she said, “Isn’t it beautiful? How she says things so soft not hard and gritty like our accent at all.”

I’d been spending most of my time jealous of the variety of British accents, it never occurred to me that anyone would find my accent beautiful. I’d been teased most of my life for how I sounded, that my voice was husky, throaty, that the words I used from books weren’t recognizable to my friends, and the words I used from my friends weren’t recognizable outside of the South. There was no audience for how I spoke.

Over time, I have adapted my speech to become more understandable, though encounters with drive-thru speakers send me reeling.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 “dang it!”. I use words like “sufficient” when I could simply say “enough.” If I were to talk about these choices rhetorically, I would say that I try to fit how I speak to whatever the situation calls for, but I’m not always successful, and I’m not always so intentional or thoughtful. 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 first rolls of my tongue, is the one my mouth says.

Conversations happen quickly. We watch for clues as we talk to one another, hints of understanding like a nod or smile. There are times I’m more tuned in to this kind of feedback than others. Immersed in language, we don’t always think about what we sound like. Though part of my profession requires me to be clear, to speak intelligently and share my knowledge and expertise, I try to project my authority by appearing comfortable in my speech. I embrace a conversational tone. I use pop culture references, though some of them may be outdated. I speak in metaphors, trying to find ways to connect concepts I introduce to my students to something to which they can relate. I’ve noticed that I do this outside of the classroom, repeating metaphor after metaphor, hoping one makes sense. I want to connect to people through stories I tell. I want them to know me, to understand me. If the focus is on how I sound, my actual message gets lost.

Perhaps this is why my drawl has become less pronounced. I speak more quickly, push my sentences together in a rush as though the words are spilling out of me. Sometimes they are. I am not always relaxed about how I speak, especially if I’m meeting people for the first time. I often make specific rhetorical choices with new groups of people. Sometimes I try to couch my accent in what my mother calls crossword clues, strings of words that you might have to look up in a dictionary or thesaurus to fully understand the context. I ask about favorite books, or movies, putting the pressure on someone else so it doesn’t remain on me. It’s as though I’m trying to prove my intelligence before it can be questioned because I don’t sound like a Midwesterner. And though my drawl is not as deep as it once was, it still gives me away each time I speak. I almost always introduce myself by explaining that I am Southern, or grew up in Alabama. There is a flicker of recognition and sometimes people even say, “I wondered where your accent was from.”

The thing is, my accent is from many places, just like I am. 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 decade I’ve lived in the Midwest, and the very academic and theoretical language of my studies.

Of course, to many of my family members, I no longer sound Southern enough. My accent is too littered with “northern” language like “pop” and sayings like “oh, for cute”. There are times when I visit, that I let my voice slide back into its old rhythms. I drop the ends off of words; my speech slows down. I call people “sweetheart,” and begin talking to strangers at the grocery store, complimenting their haircuts or handbags. I say things like handbags. I might shout “Roll Tide” when I see someone wearing an Alabama t-shirt or hat. I am not always conscious of how my behavior changes. I notice it after returning to the Midwest, or talking to a friend on the phone who asks, “Are you in Alabama? How much time have you spent there?”

When I feel a spotlight on my own language, I am ready to defend those who brush off my speech as low brow or country, or too nice or northern. Language is not so simple. It is made up of a group of experiences, places, people. How I say words, the drawl that accompanies each syllable, the way I cannot differentiate between pin and pen is part of my language, part of me. When I incorporate sayings from my childhood, or the descriptions my Granny used, any time I say “bless their heart,” I am stamping myself, asserting a language, and an identity. I am my word choices, but I am also my accent, created along coastal tides, shaped by Illinois winds, peppered with European idioms and expressions and curse words.

I am an English teacher, trained in rhetoric, to become aware of language choice and meaning. So, I notice when people mistakenly use words out of context or make words up, altogether.  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, and use an expression like, “she could start an argument in an empty house,” which is something my Granny liked to say about a friend of hers.

What you say about my language you also say about me. I am constrained by my language, existing within its structures and communicative devices. 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. In return, I will try very hard not to notice when you say irregardless (which is not a word) instead of regardless (which is).