I’ve been aware of and fascinated by the ways that people use language ever since I can remember.
In another life, I’d have been a linguist — carving out an area somewhere between sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and maybe sociology of language. I grew up in the rural South, where “colorful” idiomatic expressions are prized and cultivated, child of one southern parent and one who hailed from THE NORTH (southern New Jersey, to be precise, which is linguistically very different from Northern New Jersey/NYC, not that most people in my native state of North Carolina recognize that difference). Perhaps because of my family’s uniquely mixed dialect, some of my earliest memories are of noticing the way people talked.
I noticed that other people noticed that my family spoke differently than they did.
Sometimes, they’d remark upon that difference, asking where we were from. Other times, they’d ask one of us to repeat ourselves. Or they’d hear a word or phrase that we said as a different expression entirely. My name introduced me to this phenomenon: “Jennifer” or, as I was called when I was little, “Jenny,” sounds like “Jinny” in the tongue of central NC, that “short i” leaning toward a “long e” sound — not JIH-nee the way a New Yorker would pronounce it, a nickname for Virginia instead of Jennifer, but something like JEEiinnee. I got used to answering to “JEEiinnee.” But when I said my name, pronouncing the initial syllable as I’d been taught to, as in “meh” (JEH-nee, JEH-nih-fur) people would repeat it back to me, uncertain: “Jeannie?” “Janie?” Later, when I’d shortened it by a syllable to “Jenn,” still, southerners would say it back to me with a question mark: “Jan?” “Jean?” Even now, this stumps me and impresses me with the power that our linguistic conditioning has to determine even what we think we hear. To my ear, none of those alternatives sound anything like my name.
Maybe a lack of experience and perspective causes in children a deficit of compassion and empathy.
At that elementary-school point in my life, I had a tendency to think that the adults who seemed unable to get my name “right” were either not really listening to me, or not that smart. Then again, that’s still the conclusion many of us, even as adults, draw when we interact with people whose dialects — or native languages — differ from our own. Because the other people can’t understand us even when we’re speaking “correctly” and “clearly,” we figure they must be deficient in some way. Poorly educated, maybe. Or just poor. Or of inferior intelligence. Maybe we pity them; maybe we feel some disdain, or some comfy superiority or self-congratulation. Maybe we think we’re doing them a favor by correcting their grammar or demonstrating what we believe to be the “proper” pronunciation.
Once I grew up and became an English teacher, this subject began to eat at me.
As a kid, trying to speak the way I thought I was supposed to, I had gotten different messages from different sources: from my parents and some of the other adults I knew, I understood that I should try to sound “educated.” From some of the other kids in school, the message was the same — if you aspired to go to college, if you wanted to have any credibility as a “smart kid,” you’d better not make careless grammatical mistakes or engage in “redneck” pronunciations or idioms. Not unless you did so on purpose, for fun — or for making fun. But from kids on the other side of the very visible divide — those who weren’t going to college — the message was quite different. Correctness marked you as stuck up. It meant you might think you were better than someone who said “he ain’t coming” or “I might should eat something.”
I’m oversimplifying, of course, for the myriad shades of longing and envy and resentment and kinship on “both sides” of what was never merely a simple line in the sand were baffling then. I mainly navigated that confusion by giving up on trying to blend in with people who spoke my local dialect, and trying instead to be very, very good at Standard English. Unimpeachable, if possible. Dealing with potential accusations of stuck-up-ness meant not talking to anyone but a few close friends on the schoolbus and smiling a lot, trying to seem nice. But not trying too hard, either. Fly under the radar was my motto. Don’t do anything to attract unwanted notice.
But becoming a teacher meant that I had to take some sort of stand on the subject of language.
That miasma of emotion surrounding misplaced modifiers and double modals has grown to seem simpler in some ways and more complicated in others, now that I’ve studied and taught English and not just navigated it as a speaker. Professionally, I’ve had to figure out what I was obliged to teach students about their own dialects, and how to talk about their uses of language. On the one hand, the English teacher holds the keys to the kingdom, in a sense, since “educated” use of language is a sturdy fence around the places we’re taught to aspire to reach. A person’s command of Standard English (in the U.S., General American) has real power, despite cries that texting has ruined us, and many people seek it out — not wrongly — as if it were an actual passkey or ticket. What is the teacher’s obligation, if not to help students acquire this important instrument of success?
On the other hand, there’s what I would call the “truth” about language as a human invention. That’s a way of understanding language that encompasses and transcends facets like grammar and usage and (eyeroll) spelling. This approach to language is more appreciative than prescriptive. It involves being on the alert for the strange, cool ways in which my English differs from your English, the twisty-turny paths we take separately to reach the same clearing in the forest. How did you get here? What did you see along the way? This approach is simultaneously more like art appreciation and like lab science than it is like skills-acquisition.
In this version of studying language, it’s possible to appreciate that there’s a real reason to say something like “I might should shut the windows before we leave, since it looks like it’s fixing to pour.” The thing is, “might should” just isn’t quite the same as “should” by itself. It expresses something that’s hard to express in another way. Besides that, it has a flavor of place and time that “I should close the windows before we leave because it might rain” just doesn’t have.
If you haven’t, by the way, tried one of those “dialect” quizzes on Facebook or the like, try this one. By its measure, my dialect is every bit as southern as it ought to be, despite my childhood efforts to become, somehow, neutral. This is a form of that appreciation I’m talking about: we can observe the quirky and colorful nuances of the language we commonly speak without having to judge each other “right” or “wrong” — or ignorant or stupid or worse. How we speak and write, in all of the peculiarities and unique configurations of diction and syntax and rhythm and idiom, is one of the loveliest and most intimate expressions of who we are in the world, of how we are a part of the world.
That’s why it’s more important to listen than to correct.
The way we speak is so integral to our sense of who we are that correction, though it may feel “helpful” and “neutral” to the person offering or insisting on it, may feel to the person being corrected like an attack on their worth. They may feel — as I did when adults couldn’t understand me or mispronounced my name — like rejects, isolated or unseen. Outside of a classroom, freed from the pressure to help others hone their skills, there’s a more exciting and illuminating project that we can all participate in, if we wish. Listening to the way that people speak with interest instead of judgment opens up the world to us in a way that diving in with the red pencil at the ready cannot.
Of course, not all that we hear — or say —will be equally charming or inventive. Some grammar is incomprehensible, some diction is pretentious or inaccurate or purposefully misleading. People frequently use language to defraud others or to confuse or manipulate them. Accents and dialects can be used in the service of these deceptions, or as distractions from them. Language as we employ it is far from innocent, imbued as it is with our intentions and aspirations.
In a way, trying to listen to how someone talks with appreciation for what is distinct and idiosyncratic can open us up to hearing the person more fully.
Well-crafted General American English doesn’t guarantee the quality or truthfulness of its content or the integrity of its motivations. I’ve read perfectly grammatical, impeccably punctuated and proofread student compositions that said precisely nothing of significance. It can be done. Form matters, but it alone isn’t a great measure of worth.
In paying attention to what someone else is getting wrong or right, our tendency to listen for the markers of someone’s class or race and then to stop listening — or to judge the content through the lenses that class and race supply — can get in the way of our noticing so much else.
That “so much else,” everything from artfulness of expression to a perspective we’ve not considered to undertones of slipperiness that might alert us to the speaker’s ill intent, is finally far more important than whether or not the infinitive is split or the modifier dangles. As linguistics would tell us, even dialects and pidgins and creoles have structural integrity, consistent logics that make them grammatical unto themselves. As art would tell us, there may not only be startling beauty in the non-standard, but it may provide us a passageway into something previously inconceivable, something astonishing. You never know where you’ll find such openings, but you’ll surely find them if you teach yourself to look.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.