"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Friday, February 22, 2013

All Things to All Men

Another essay from my undergrad days...

In her essay “Mother Tongue,” Chinese-American author Amy Tan makes reference to “all the Englishes” she heard and used growing up. Initially, she compares the intellectual, educated language she uses in public speaking to the pidgin, or “broken” English of her mother and, indeed, herself in certain situations. Likewise, Dominican-born author Julia Alvarez, speaking of her identity as a writer, graphically refers to the “finger-snapping, gum-chewing English” of Latino writers living in the U.S. This is English that blends with the heritage languages of the speakers.  While the distillation of English as in Tan’s case or the Spanish/English blending of Alvarez’ Latino writers is quite common among first, second, and even third generation immigrants, the phenomenon also occurs with those whose only language is English.

When talking to foreigners -- those without a keen grasp of English -- I often find myself over-simplifying my sentences. I don’t speak louder, like the shouting “Ugly American,” though I will speak a little slower and enunciate more clearly. Without really giving it much thought, I strip my speech of idioms, metaphors, and slang. “I’m toast,” becomes “I am tired.” “That chick’s so over-the-hill,” is now “That woman is very old.” And, “I’m stinkin’ blotto,” turns into “I have drunk to much alcohol.”  In her essay, Tan tells her Chinese-born mother “not waste money this way” to explain her reason for purchasing used furniture.  She has distilled the essence of a discussion to a few simple words. In the same way, I will make the complexity or simplicity of my speech match that of the listener.

An interesting occurrence is the tendency to ape the style of another’s speech. We may unconsciously imitate a person’s stutter or speech impediment. When our children are young we will often mimic their “twick o‘ tweat” or “Thith ith thtuck.”  The same applies to accents. I have not lived in Canada since 1963, yet when my relatives are visiting, I sound like I’m right off the boat from Toronto, eh? Laid-back West Coast yuppies will find themselves “pahking the cah” when conversing with Bostonians. And honestly, who can resist slipping into the soft, silky drawl of the southern waitress when she asks, “Would you lahk a slice of pe-cahn pahhh, hon?”

Foreign languages and regional accents aside, there occurs a division of speech based on educational level. You just know when you are speaking to the forty-year-old behind the counter at McDonald’s that he will not be impressed with all your fancy talk (unless, of course, he happens to hold a Masters degree in English Literature). He won’t appreciate the subtle nuances and clever turns of a phrase that may move the savvy business executive with whom you are interviewing. To the prospective boss, the good use of language shows the intelligence and education desired by most businesses. In her essay “My English,” Alvarez’ parents and grandfather impress upon her the importance of learning to speak English properly for that very reason.

When speaking to an authority figure such as a police officer or judge, we all slip into another “English” -- at least if we are smart. We choose our words carefully. We avoid expressions such as “dude” or “jerk.”  We don’t say “no” unless it is followed by “sir.” We are very careful not to say anything that might incriminate us, even if we are innocent.

At the other end of the spectrum, and not as common an occurrence for most people raised in a middle-class environment, is the “gutterization” of speech around the homeless, drug user, or other street person. The word “shit” along with all its variations appear more frequently.  As a young man in the Army, I frequently hitchhiked from Tacoma north to Seattle or Vancouver. With my money spent on partying, I often had to “camp out” in the landscaping of office buildings or parks. I hung out in the seedier neighborhoods, adopting a glassy stare and drinking beer or smoking dope with the street people. I affected a speech with them that was something of a synthesis of all the others I have mentioned. It was Alvarez’ blending with just English. There was a bit of the accent, and a touch of the dumbing-it-down. I would add in the education to make it interesting, but not enough to indicate I might have twenty dollars in my wallet. I was engaging in pure street theater and speaking to impress.

There are indeed many different “Englishes.” Each serves a purpose. Few master more than one or two though the wise person will strive to know as many as possible. Imitating another’s manner of speech need not be mocking, demeaning or insulting. It can be a sign of interest in -- and a kinship with -- another. By speaking at the level of her mother’s doctors, Amy Tan convinced them to take care of a missing CAT scan.  When the Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all men…,” He meant that he approached each person on his or her own level. He spoke to them where they were and in their own idiom. In the same way, using “all the Englishes,” we can influence others and, in doing so, create better understanding between all people.

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