Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Question on Language

Early this month, Emily Johnson Dickerson died. She was the last monolingual speaker of the Chickasaw language. She was the last person alive whose worldview was completely Chickasaw--who could not separate the language from herself.

I didn't know Emily Johnson Dickerson. And I'm not Chickasaw. But reading about her got me to thinking. About language. About history. About power--and the lack of it. And about how all of that comes across in writing.


For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply interested in language and words. It might be genetic--my mom was a competitive Scrabble player, traveling across the country for meets. It might also be related to where I'm from--my hometown of New Orleans is home to a vast array of accents and dialects that have developed over almost three centuries of immigration, emigration and cultural mixing between Native American, European and African groups. Long before I'd ever heard of the Tower of Babel or Linguistic Relativity or Determinism, before Noam Chomsky blew my mind, I was interested in what it meant that I called that strip of grass in the middle of the road a neutral ground while my Georgia cousins called it a median.

When, in middle school, I started studying Latin, my interest in language was heightened. Seeing the relationship between those ancient, foreign words and my own was something magical. Later, when my English class read Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street (in which the main character, Esperanza, explains that "In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters."), I started to think more about the risks, the negative consequences, how these magical codes could isolate us, limit us, keep us apart. I started to think about the linguistic changes that have occurred in my own city, my own family, my own life. Why do my parents and I speak English instead of the West African languages of our enslaved ancestors? Or the Dutch and perhaps Yiddish of the European Jewish slave traders who also contributed to our blood? Why don't I speak the French spoken by my octaroon great-grandparents?

Those are all questions for which, if I look to history, I can find satisfactory answers. I don't speak Senegambian because my ancestors who spoke it were forced to assimilate into French and Spanish speaking societies. I don't speak Dutch or Yiddish because my ancestors who spoke it didn't claim us as part of their line and, as such, didn't ever introduce us to their mother tongues. I don't speak French because, after Louisiana became a state, the Americans privileged English and coerced (read: forced) the population to learn it.

But there is a question that is, for me, more troubling. Why do I code-switch the way I do--why am I writing this blog post in this language instead of the New Orleanian African American English I use at home? I know the answer. The answer is that I learned to write in Standard American English. SAE is what I learned to use in school. SAE is part of what allows me to be inside the discourse community that I want to be inside of, to be a member of The Academy, to be part of the club. But even though I want access to the world SAE opens for me, I worry about what I'm sacrificing to be in that world.

I often joke that I'm not a creative writer--that I think it's all magic and wizardry and I respect it and value it (or maybe envy it) but I can't do it. But I think maybe the real reason is more than that. I think part of my struggle with creative writing is that, were I to write my world, it would need to be in the language I speak. But I can only write in SAE.

So, I'm wondering. Creative writers, you magical, wonderful, talented people: how much--if at all--does your language (not so much your content or style, but your actual language) change when you're switching between creative and non- (or less) creative work? Code-switchers: to what degree do you feel like you control your switching? Poly-glots: can you use your multiple languages with the same ease in all subjects? And readers: who are some of your favorite writers who write outside of standard language forms?

Tell us--or write us, as it were.


  1. As a poet: I've never been able to write a sonnet or use SAT status vocabulary words in my prose or poetry or fiction or non. I like the sounds inside of a head. I like alliteration and words that evoke imagery, connecting with the magic of small things and colors and feelings. I do not like spoken word because the performance only lets you feel one kind of way. I like to read out loud myself and I imagine others reading my writing with eyes or lips, never their ears. I don't believe in grammar when in this mind-mode, much as I rail against your/you're/yore misusage on Reddit or Facebook.

    It comes down to the sound. It comes down to the feelings.

    As a code-switcher: English is not my first language. I grew up speaking Chinese and didn't learn English until I started daycare/school; at the same time, Chinese isn't my first language either other than chronologically because my parents stopped speaking to us primarily in Mandarin so we wouldn't have accents--pretty common for 1st/2nd generation immigrants. I can't read or write Chinese well because I didn't learn until I took college classes (Mama and Papa Young were more concerned with Grace and I going to Sunday School than Chinese school. Clearly a mistake.) Yet even still, these days when I'm home, when I'm on the phone with my sixter, my tongue returns to the Chinglish of my youth. I also float between standard English and friend-English, different dialects with the different people in my life. I'm conscious of my slower words in San Diego, harsher laughter in Los Angeles, slang in New Orleans, propernessosity when typing a FB status as opposed to a Livejournal entry. I guess what I'm thinking is I don't switch code to code so much as I have many half-languages, too many 0.5s and nothing that's a whole or a 1.

    My mom doesn't like to speak English anymore, really. That's also a thing.

    As a reader:
    Li-Young Lee
    Zora Neale Hurston
    Eileen Myles
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    Francesca Lia Block
    Johnathan Safran Foehr (or whatever)

  2. I too love the "sound" of words. SAE can in fact do it for me sometime - I like alliteration & onomatopoeia in writing because they feel so good rolling of the tongue. To be totally honest though, I just enjoy the words themselves so much regardless of their meaning.

    As an aside, I never find enough instances to use the word "juxtaposition" & I am extremely proud of the day in November of 2003 when I used it in a sentence with "Cornucopia."

    You've made me consider how important the "Spoken" tongue has been in my working life as a police officer juxtaposed with the almost clinical writing style necessary for official report writing.

    A clinical speaking style can separate you from the people you serve and stymie communication but that same style is necessary to memorialize your observations & justify your actions.

    Judicious use of the colloquial can determine the level of understanding between people but use of such terminology in a report will undermine your message & undermine that communication.

    In the real world "Code Switching" either verbally or written is a skill that can enable you to perform at a high level

  3. Dorothy: I really like the term "half-languages." I feel like that a lot of the time too, especially if I've been reading a lot of German texts or spending a lot of time away from the dialects/codes I'm most at home with. On the one hand, it's frustrating to have the 0.5s and not the 1s, but sometimes it can be really nice to have so many 0.5s. It came up for me recently reading Dreiser; I could see the German in his English word compounds and sentence structures so I felt like I was in on a little secret.

    Gerard: I had literally never thought about the types of language shifts that police officers use. Now I'm really interested in that language play. What a good example of using language with intention!

  4. Beautiful! (I think we were introduced to Cisneros in the same class.) "I think part of my struggle with creative writing is that, were I to write my world, it would need to be in the language I speak. But I can only write in SAE." What a wonderful challenge you have posed to yourself. I'd read every bit of that journey!

  5. Sometimes I cough up language from weird places. Here's the fight I'm fighting on a Saturday night.

    If you cough up the word upon, you have to get rid of it. Same as the word thus. Shitty word vomit. Where does it come from? Shakespeare? I have no idea. We attach ourselves to words that mean important or good. I call them GRE words like gossamer and um what's the other one, crimson, and vellum. These are very offensive words that have nothing to do with my life. But sometimes I feel urges to use words like these words, and my point is the "speaking Mel" is at odds with the working "writing Mel" and I believe it's in my best interest to trust the speaking Mel.

  6. The Chickasaw app is actually very good. It has enough examples and sound files that you can really start to wrap your way around the way the language works. Anowa chipisala'cho!

  7. Mrs. Coleman, if anyone is a conglomeration (approaching a hodgepodge) of language,cultures, interests and points of view it is you. It's funny, I've heard your SAE and NOE, and it never feels likes (to me as a listener) that you are compromising anything. It feels more like someone who is speaking Spanglish. From this perspective, you are not only multilingual but also multidialectical. And you know how we love multis around here.

    All thing considered, your point is well taken and I do not want to make light of/or simplify what sometimes is a very serious matter. But, it's funny from the bottom's a good problem to have. Some of us master neither language well enough to move beyond the small space we were born into; and worse, even when our local language patterns work well, if we fail to communicate in the manner that is needed (with our without aggression/assertiveness/tenderness, etc.) we may be without the proper codes to communicate with those who are closest/mean the most to us.

    Concerning the questions you posted about moving between languages, I appreciate when people use whatever they have with a sense of love for humanity.