The Uncommon Tongue
Learning a new language is one of the most challenging things you can do. Because we so heavily rely on our pre-existing native tongue, we forget how scary it is to know nothing about conveying a message we want to get across. For the past school year, I have been studying French. I’m still very new to it, so as you can assume, I’m nowhere near fluent. Last week I told my French professor that I liked to cook my family, instead of that I liked cooking with them. Learning a new language is so frustratingly difficult not only because you’re being introduced to thousands of new concepts, but because you essentially start off with the same blank slate you had as an infant—a slate in which you have no idea how to properly communicate or express yourself.
Because I still have trouble correctly pronouncing the simplest of words, I have no time to focus on how I’m presenting that sentence, or how I look while doing so. This means that while I’m speaking, I lose my ability to include my personality into my style of speech. Every conversation is a characterless “Hello, how are you? I am very good, thank you. Hasn’t the weather been nice lately?” I am the poster child for the world’s most robotic French speaker. Not only am I painfully monotonous to listen to, imagine my vexations when I’m completely unable to add any ounce of wit or charisma to my speech. Every Monday through Thursday between 1:30pm and 2:35pm, I am essentially rendered somewhat mute. This inability to perorate is a story that Barbara Mellix is all too familiar with. In her article, “From Outside, In”, Mellix shares her experience growing up in an area where slang was regularly used, but not encouraged. Mellix calls these two contrasting brands of speech “Black English” and “Proper English”, the former being Mellix’s go-to tongue. However common Black English was used in Mellix’s hometown of Greeleyville, South Carolina, Black English consisted of improper contractions like “ain’t”, which were strongly discouraged in both academic and social environments. But Black English was familiar to Mellix; this form of language was a sort of safe haven to her, yet Proper English was her only option in a world where speech composition was tediously raked over. My French class was Mellix’s life; she had to persevere and adapt to this way of speech everyday for most of her life before finally understanding it.
Having her own language stripped from her vocabulary made for a harsh period of adaptation for Mellix; she had to figure out an entirely new way to articulate her own visions. Just as Mellix explains in this passage of her text:
As a child I felt this same doubleness in uptown Greeleyville where the whites lived. “Ain’t that a pretty dress you’re wearing!” Toby, the town policeman, said to me one day when I was fifteen. “Thank you very much,” I replied, my own voice barely audible in my own ears. The words felt wrong in my mouth, rigid, foreign. It was not that I had never spoken that phrase before—it was common in black English, too—but I was extremely conscious that this was an occasion for proper English. I had taken out my English and put it on as I did my church clothes, and I felt as if I were wearing my Sunday best in the middle of the week. It did not matter that Toby had not spoken grammatically correct English. He was white and could speak as he wished. I had something to prove. Toby did not. (147)
Mellix did not feel comfortable in her own skin while using this outlandish (to her) method of English. To take one’s away language is to take away one’s identity. I however, can relate to Mellix and her struggle to correctly articulate herself, if only on a merely superficial level. Imagine having to stand in front of a hypothetical audience of consisting of your peers, your professors, your family, anyone who you’ve ever come in contact with throughout the course of your life. Could you stand there, and confidently prove to them that you’re dexterously able of using this foreign form of expression? I can only picture myself standing there, small and scared, giving a slow, shaky exhale before proceeding to embarrass myself before the crowd. Luckily this is a nightmarish scenario that I will never have to experience, but Mellix did. Mellix had to endure this terrifying act of justification constantly. Whether it was a simple exchange on her way to school or a presentation before a panel, she had to prove herself to her audience. Nothing about her struggle was effortless.
What I didn’t realize prior to reading Mellix’s text was how I had subconsciously found home in all of the little vocabularic quirks I’ve picked up over the years. My frequent misuse of “ironically” or my habit of speaking too quickly when I get passionate about something is hardly a form of language, but it’s my language. If we all used Merriam Webster's definition of English we’d be incredibly uninteresting. Essentially, we would be listening or reading the same thing by a different person over and over again. It’s the uniqueness of language that makes it so appealing.
So why would we—or rather—why ARE we taking away these interesting forms of speech when we could just as easily be celebrating the fact that humanity is still capable of creating new ways to communicate? There is no such thing as a universal language, and that’s a good thing. Without the diverse languages that we have to aid us in creating our colorful world of ideas and literature, creativity would be an abstract idea of stories that we’ve already heard. Just as Noam Chomsky (father of modern linguistics) states, “Human language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation” (85). To our knowledge, there are currently over 2,700 languages spoken and with more than 7,000 different dialects in the world ("Language"). That means that there are more than 7,000 individual ways to say the same sentence. With all of these distinct linguistics in existence, there is virtually always something to write or be said that hasn’t been heard by the world before. Take away even half of these languages and humanity would be stunted in terms of text. Not only can languages be used to express ourselves, but they’re also frequently used to bounce off one another and create new languages that give life to unique thoughts. Nancy Sommers touched upon the concept of using one’s own style of language in her piece titled, “As I Stand Here Writing”. Sommers states, “It is always the writer’s voice, vision, and argument that create the new source” (299). We all have a vision, but not everyone has the opportunity or ability to voice those visions. In her same text, Sommers recalls a situation where her words were not present, and the lack of not having her own personal self as a source hurt her credibility greatly. It was during one of her first debates on her high school debate team when Sommers first experienced these frustrations. Not having the time to prepare her argument, Sommers borrowed a few quote cards from her fellow teammates. Sommers did not have a present voice going into that debate—she was essentially an unprepared, useless vessel in which her teammates spoke through. She had no idea where to go with these thoughts as they weren’t her own, and the end resulted in her embarrassment. In that very moment she felt what it was like to have no language of her own to cling to, just like how Mellix felt when she wasn’t permitted to use her style of speech.
It’s tremendously important to realize that each and every person has their own idea of how language works, because we need these different forms of language to better understand ourselves as human beings. There is no possible way to define a manner in which someone is allowed to express themselves. By saying that one form of expression is “improper”, you’re silencing the population of voices like Mellix’s and replacing them with timid voices that do not belong to them. Anyone of any language, race, or gender deserves the divine right to express themselves as they so choose. À chacun son propre.
Chomsky, Noam. “Language and Freedom.” Ideas and Ideals. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1999. 86-102. Print.
"Language." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, n.d. Web.
Mellix, Barbara. “From Outside, In.” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis,
and Reflection. 1st ed. Eds. Whatcom Community College Faculty. Fountainhead Press, 2010. 169-182. Print.
Sommers, Nancy. “I Stand Here Writing.” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry,
Analysis, and Reflection. 1st ed. Eds. Whatcom Community College Faculty. Fountainhead Press, 2010. 293-304. Print.
copyright 2014, Ellen Carroll