I am not a linguist, and I’m not particularly interested in talking like one. I am in this identity and culture class, and I know that Estrella is going to ask us to talk about our, as she says, linguistic autobiographies. I am reading this David Crystal chapter about dialects not accents and I am thinking, She is going to ask us to talk about our dialects.
I’ve got quite a few non-Anglo immigrant roots, but most of them were speed assimilationists. If my grandpa’s genealogical newsletters are to believed, my grandma Fran’s thirteen-some-siblings learned English the second they washed onto the shore, and also None of That Had Anything To Do With Stalin Killing The Jews Or Anything Don’t Worry Kids. The linguistics are not a part of the story. They are American, at least since 1920 or so. I mean, all my life they told me they were Russian—you know, they came over from the U-S-S-R! But you know what happened, last year? I found out the name of the town they came from. And it’s in Ukraine. Ukraine-S-S-R. I don’t even know what language they spoke, much less how it impacted their identity as immigrants. I am subtly led to believe that because they have money now, they were never immigrants. They speak English. They belong.
But I don’t really care about my dad’s side of the family anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest cultural-linguistic contribution I’ve received from my paternal half is that placeless flat dialect I earned by learning to read in Las Vegas, a first-grader sprawled out on transplanted grass with Goosebumps books, shaded from the desert sun by synthetic peach stucco and those weird glowing green street signs they have out West. Here is what I will bring to class: What does it say about my lingusitic identity that I did my most formative speaking-learning in the most vacantly cosmopolitan valley? A town so ahistorical, unremembering, displaced; like a million midwestern orphan newsgirls with Big Dreams were dropped into the valley’s dry, neon lap and preserved for eternity in a state of absolutely generic despair. A town of people who are never willing to admit where they’re from, unless they’re brown and no one will listen anyway. A million vernaculars/one dialect. Cocktail waitress.
There are markers of place that tie me to maternal memory more tightly. My mother’s mother died when my mom was six but my Aunt still says “root” and “ruined” like it’s an Alabama cousin vacation before 1967 rolled in. She never lost it. My mother only vaguely remembers Southern Sundays with her mom—just itchy tights and mary-janes, getting slapped on the hand for being Too Bored For Baptists. She remembers the way her mom spoke, though, and remembers visiting Alabama relatives and realizing why her mom always sounded so different from her friends’ mommas.
My mother spent most of her life trying to scrub off those linguistic markers. By the time she was a teenager, both her parents were dead and all she knew about the way she spoke was that it sounded like barefoot concrete seven kids alcoholic dad absolute poverty in Pontiac, Michigan and god knows she was going to be better than that. My mother’s education was minimal, but it was important to her that no one ever knew where she came from, that no one looked at her after she spoke the way they looked at her feet when she was a little girl and said to her Oh, you’re one of those kids. My mom had a Class Complex. I’m sure it only got worse for those twelve-or-so-years she was married to my dad. His parents had state jobs and White Diamonds and real Persian rugs and had traveled all over. My dad had completed one whole semester at University of Michigan. My dad had parents and adequate shoes.
My sister describes those six years before I was born, the bulk of my parents’ marriage, as a period of constant reassertion that this family was not going to be ghetto this family does not say ain’t this family will not let white trash ruin their happy happy but poor happy family life on Home Street. And she will, god help her!, defend that right with her fists. And she did. I remember bits and pieces of this. I remember education is the most important thing for you because you are are a Powerful Girl and also you won’t be poor forever and you know better than to talk like that you sound stupid and no you can’t wear baggy jackets, just because we live in Pontiac right now doesn’t mean we are ghetto. But by the time I was in high school, we had moved to the suburbs. We were poorer than we had ever been, but we had arrived. I went to a really good school. I remember asking my mother, who still worked in downtown Pontiac during the day, why she “talked different” with her city friends than she did at home. She said, there’s nothing wrong with where I came from, and I don’t want people to think that I’m uppity. She knew she had “saved” me from her own life, at least a little bit, and she was proud of how well I wrote and how well I talked. She could finally remind herself where she came from. My mother lost that “root” and “ruined” when she washed her “ain’ts” off, but she’s not afraid to sound like she’s from the city anymore. She is. I often wonder if she’s mourned her linguistic roots, though. When she rinsed off her father and her dead mother, she also watched her living mother and her lost siblings and her first home wash down the drain with them. It’s important to her, today, to constantly remember her mother. It’s a process of spiritual grounding, and maybe a form of repentance for selling out what little her mother worked to give her. I will never sell out my mother, even if I talk like I went to college. I don’t ever want to forget to think about my mother and her mother and my aunts, even if my mother’s shame disconnected me from the way they all speak. I don’t speak anything like any of them.