I’m a mutt. My roots are flung all across southern Europe, western Europe, and western Africa. My family has been in the United States so long that it’s probably safe to say that my “people” aren’t from anywhere other than America. And if there is a such thing as a distinct American ethnicity (apart from Native American ethnicity), then I’m a likely archetype.
It’s not the only thing mutted about me. My dialect is almost literally all over the map.
A couple of weeks ago, an amazing study of dialects came out of North Carolina State University. This elegant and thorough study, best known for its eye-catching maps that are a lot clearer than one often finds in the fields of sociolinguistics and dialectology, caught fire across the internet, appearing most notably on Huffington Post and Business Insider. We even discussed the study in my Advanced Writing class.
The study endlessly fascinates me. I have long been interested in linguistics, to the point that a friend of mine and I devised our own language some years back. A lot of it is because, well, I talk funny. When I’ve spoken with professional linguists, they say that my dialect sounds something like a cross between North Dakota, Cleveland, and Maine. I even throw in some things that are way out there–a lot of Canadian “eh” and British “brilliant”.
There are a lot of reasons why I talk the way I do. If you dive into the maps in the study, you will see that my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, is very much a borderland, a fact which any linguist will confirm. You’ll notice that, for a lot of the word usages that were studied, the numbers are roughly even. There is a line, roughly equivalent to Interstate 70 through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, that divides the North Midland dialect and the South Midland dialect. Bloomington is also a college town, attracting people from all over the country and all over the world. I grew up hearing many different dialects, and in my adolescence, I particularly took up with a household from Brooklyn and a household from Boston.
Then there was my moving around in adulthood. For instance, what do you call a carbonated beverage? If you check out the study’s map, you’ll see that Bloomington, Indiana is about evenly divided between “coke”, “soda”, and “pop”. Now, in my family, who came from further south, it was called “coke”. (And some of my friends and relatives also said “sodie pop”, and I’m always surprised that that usage never shows up in such studies. I guess it’s too rare.) But then I moved off to St. Louis at age 18, where virtually everyone says “soda”. The word stuck, although when I lived in England briefly (how I picked up “brilliant” to mean “cool”), I discovered I needed to say “fizzy pop” to be understood. But I’ve lived in Minnesota for nine years, where most everyone I know says “pop”, and yet “soda” has stuck with me.
Another test is “you guys” vs. “you all” vs. “y’all” vs. plain old “you”. “You guys” holds a slight majority in Bloomington, though my relatives an hour south more often said “y’all”. I’ve had mostly African American neighbors about half of the time I’ve lived in Minneapolis, and I’ve picked up “y’all”–but curiously, I never did from my family. My pronunciation of “I” has become more Southern for the same reason.
Some of it was a matter of choice. In third grade, during reading time, my teacher pointed out that “either” and “neither” could be pronounced with an “e” sound or an “i” sound, and I decided that very day I would use the one I heard less often, and have said the words with an “i” ever since.
Which leads me to the point of this post. Something else that some linguists have picked up on my dialect is that it sounds affected, like I’m trying to put on airs. Now, they don’t think I’m trying to do this; rather, they think these are subconscious habits. The main reason they think I do this is that they notice I even change dialects from one sentence to the next.
Like I said, they don’t think I’m trying to do this. They think it’s subconscious. And now, after having studied some linguistics, I finally understand why.
In any culture, there is what is called the prestige dialect. A prestige dialect is the one you’re supposed to have if you expect to climb the socioeconomic ladder. As an example, they say that, if you want to make something of yourself in New York City, you can’t actually sound like you’re from New York City. A lot of us are aware of the idea without necessarily labeling it a prestige dialect. In America, we have what’s called a “newscaster dialect”. It’s not really an actual dialect–though some say it most resembles the dialect of Des Moines, Iowa. However, if you wish to advance as a newscaster, sounding like you’re from Brooklyn or Atlanta is straight out. So this dialect wields a lot of influence in media, which influences how we talk. We associate having “no accent” (there’s not really a such thing) with power and influence and belonging to the upper classes.
I think I picked up on this at a very early age, and tried to sculpt the way I speak to something other than what I heard around me. I also cannot underestimate the power of television on my upbringing. As my father cut us off socially to hide the abuse, television, where the newscaster dialect holds sway, was my only window into how other people talked. And, looking back, I think at least some of my schoolteachers tried to “correct” the more Southern parts of us kids’ speech. Then again, with a university renowned for its school of education, not all of my teachers were from southern Indiana.
And so I went through life accruing what I thought sounded like the way people talked who were above me socially. I’m almost certain it’s how I picked up the more East Coast/New England parts of my dialect. Where I’m from, such a dialect means you’re most likely associated with the university, and thus you are educated.
And I wanted desperately to be educated. I entered kindergarten functioning at a fourth-grade level. But, rather than offer me any enrichment, the principal told my parents that the teachers couldn’t do their job with me in the classroom, so their goal was to dumb me down to the other students for the sake of classroom management. By the age of 13, my father out of the picture and my mother disabled, we found ourselves in public housing. In my neighborhood, trying to get out of there was frowned upon; you were “thinking you’re better than everyone else.” My mother didn’t understand the mentality–she thought that everyone living there deserved better than what the neighborhood had to offer.
But, at some point in the past few years, something clicked. I picked up a bit of a drawl–living in Minnesota!–that gets even stronger when I go home to visit. I started using the word “ain’t” in the hope that my awful, horrible first-grade teacher (who deserves about a half-dozen blog posts of her own) might roll in her grave. I quit caring about how I might impress people with the way I sound.
And I wish we all would just give it up. Last semester I researched the subject of dialect discrimination for class. It’s an ugly thing, primarily because it ensures that people remain in the class into which they were born. We have plenty of mechanisms that do that job in our society as it is. If we, as an American culture, truly hold to the Horatio Alger principle that success comes largely through hard work, then we must dismantle the impediments that keep the hard work of certain groups of people from receiving its just reward.
Don’t believe that such things exist in America? I could write volumes on the subject, but I’ll close out with this one simple fact I stumbled across yesterday: An adult born into wealth is 2.5 times more likely to be wealthy without a college degree than an adult born into poverty with a college degree.
Not a one of us is intrinsically any better or worse than the next person. We all have something valuable to share with our species, and justice demands that honest work deserves honest reward.
PS: For a nice, quick-and-dirty study of American and Canadian dialects, check out this great blog post: http://dialectblog.com/northamerican-accents/
I realised a couple of days ago that, for the first time, I am blogging and have at least a small handful of people reading my writing who do not actually know me face-to-face. This is of course a good problem to have. But it does leave me feeling like I should impart a bit of my autobiography to aid those who are coming into my my blog and the life it revolves around in media res.
I was born and grew up in Southern Indiana. I have three siblings younger than me who all came in quick succession. I was a bright but awkward child, the latter aided by the fact that my father was an abuser, and abusers use social isolation to hide abuse. Thus, I did not really grow up around any children my own age.
When I turned eight, my mother escaped with us and filed for divorce. After a fiasco of my father having temporary custody during the divorce, my mother won custody. However, owing to the abuse, my mother suffered permanent disabilities. Added to the fact that my father did not payand my mother could not get the courts to get him to do so, I grew up quite poor, in a community with a very sharp class divide. This experience made me very aware of class-consciousness.
Once we escaped my father, I took an interest in going to church, in part because it was one of the things he forbade. I ended up in a congregation in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and then attended one of their Bible colleges in St. Louis.
During this entire process, I was slowly coming to the realisation that I was “not like other boys”–because I liked other boys. Not knowing what to do, I turned to the authorities in my life–the college authorities–and the short version of the story is that I was required to attend ex-gay “therapy” in order to remain in school. I remained in the “therapy” much longer than I remained in the school, which I had to leave for financial and health reasons.
I relocated to my hometown of, Indiana, and transferred to Indiana University, where I majored in philosophy. This was a misguided choice of major for a few reasons, chief of them being was that I wanted to go into creative writing for at least a chunk of my career. It took me awhile to realise that the Jean-Paul Sartres and Ursula LeGuins are by far the exception in the world of philosophy.
But you don’t make every decision in life. Some decisions get made for you, quite unexpectedly. In May 2004 I received two letters from the. One informed me that I would lose my medical insurance, which I needed for the treatment of disabilities, and the second stated that there would be major cuts to my school funding.
One month later, I boarded a Greyhound for, sight unseen. I only knew two people here, both online–one remains a dear friend. But I had heard great recommendations for the city, and as I researched it, it had everything I was looking for: progressive and gay-friendly (offering me my first realistic chance of coming out), with a large arts community, a stable economy, and good health-care and transit services. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I got a job in customer service at Minnesota Children’s Museum, which I held for four years until the museum was hit in the first wave of recession cuts in November 2008, when I was laid off.
I was adrift for a while after the layoff, and I got really depressed. Changes in student-loan laws opened up the opportunity for me to return to college, which I did in January 2012 at Metropolitan State University, this time majoring in Creative Writing where I belonged.
In the midst of all this was a sea change spiritually. After having to leave the evangelical Church for entertaining the idea of living a celibate but openly gay life (which takes more explaining than this format allows), I ended up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, where I found a safe space to ask the questions innate to my sceptical nature. And those questions led me right out of Christianity. And it was okay. I spent a while with a small Quaker group, and more recently have sporadically attended a Unitarian-Universalist church. I mostly see myself as a pilgrim, always journeying, as one friend put it, “always an emigrant, never an immigrant.” I pick up something valuable wherever I go that I keep.
My day-to-day life now is focussed on school, which I attend year-round. In my free time, I sing with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus and serve on Metropolitan State’s arts-and-literature editorial staff. I half-joke that I am terminally single. I do, however, live with a bicycle named Wilbur.
ETA: I have been challenged by a friend to expound and improve upon what I wrote. I’m learning….
I had said in my post earlier today that I wanted to speak briefly about how Matthew Shepard’s murder affected me personally. I was going to wait until tomorrow to write this, but I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to forget to do so, and I didn’t want the palpability of the anniversary to escape me before I could write of it.
It is funny how the memory can play tricks on you, because, for the longest time, I had misremembered his death as having occurred whilst I was still living in St Louis, but this is impossible, as I moved from St Louis to Bloomington, Indiana in May 1998. So, I had been living in Bloomington, but not for long.
I understand why I had got confused about the timing, as the year 1998 was a confusing year for me. I began the year living in St Louis, my residence since 1992, when I began Bible college. I had had to leave school the September previous for financial reasons, but was bound and determined to remain in St Louis, believing that to return to my hometown would indicate I had failed at life. I set up my life in a little apartment in the suburb of Florissant, and thought I was living life well, but I was not. I could not hold a job as I drowned in depression. Then, waves of peripatetic paranoia left me unable to take care of myself at all. By April, I had decided–as best as one can decide when one’s mind is racing a mile a second–that, if to be gay and Christian was a contradiction, and that contradictions ought not to exist, I should therefore cease to exist. One call to suicide prevention led to a hospital stay, which led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and in May 1998, about to lose my apartment for lack of rent–though I had convinced myself I could make the money somehow, I most reluctuantly returned to Indiana to live with my mother.
For most of the time that I had been in Bible college, I had participated in what is commonly called “ex-gay therapy”, but which the counsellors themselves call “reparative therapy.” [Tomorrow I will repost the story of how that came about.] Upon flipping through the Yellow Pages randomly, I came across an essentially one-man organisation called Freedom Through Christ Ministries. Their sole purpose was to convert gay* people into heterosexuals, unlike my previous counselling experiences, which carried out their work under the more generic umbrella of “Christian counselling”.
So, I moved back to my hometown, which for some reason thinks of itself as gay-friendly. (Sorry, but if I’m frequently harassed for just walking down the sidewalk by myself, I’m not going to presume I won’t be harassed walking hand-in-hand with my boyfriend). I began almost immediately thereafter a “therapy” designed specifically to make one not be gay (or, as I like to call it, to turn into a giraffe, because it’s just as likely and just as necessary). And then, right after that, I read of the murder of a gay man in the national headlines. You can understand that these three factors, simultaneously, were in and of themselves enough to keep me in the closet for several years thereafter.
*They do not use the word “gay” because they do not believe that there is a such thing as a gay person, or a homosexual person. All people are heterosexual, some just have “homosexual temptations”
Some of my posts will be older writings which can be found elsewhere on the internet. I figure it would be smart to collect all my best writings in one place. It also, well, lets me be lazy on occasion, and it is a cold, rainy, dreary day in Minneapolis.
The following story was originally published to I’m From Driftwood in April 2009. I have made here a couple of minor edits. This account illustrates my sense of humour (I claim to have no sense of humour but some friends claim otherwise). I can’t try to be funny, my jokes fall flat, but funny things happen to me, and I can relate them.
I checked for the source of the sound, and felt a small hole in the crotch of my jeans. “Fifteen hours,” I assured myself. “Fifteen hours, and I can unpack my bags and change pants.” I consoled my mom for the millionth time, telling her I would be fine, as we both fought back the tears and my brother prepared to drive me to the Greyhound station.
The previous three weeks had been a whirlwind. I had received notice that the funding for my philosophy degree at Indiana University had been cut sharply, and that my state insurance had been eliminated. When you live in a small town in a conservative state and have a serious medical condition, you don’t mess around—you move. Spending several sleepless nights on campus computers, I talked with friends about where to move. Toledo? It had an intriguing opportunity for me to advance my art career, but it was too small for my taste. Chicago? I loved to visit, but it was too big for me to live in. Seattle? Nice, but too far for moving on a budget. Minneapolis…
I pulled out the ticket. Bloomington to Indianapolis to Chicago to Minneapolis. I had packed as many of my belongings as I could into the Greyhound maximum of four bags— two to go below and two carry-ons. (More of my possessions would follow thanks to friends visiting Minnesota, and the rest would go in a landfill.) Surely, my two smallest bags would fit into the overhead compartments. Unfortunately, my memory of the size of Greyhound buses proved very optimistic. “You can’t fit those on here, they’re too big, they’re gonna have to stay off,” called out the driver gruffly. “But, I’m moving, I don’t have a choice!” I begged. He relented. I stuffed the smallest bag underneath my seat, and straddled the other carry-on…
Behind me lay most of the world I knew. Sure, I’d studied awhile in St. Louis and interned in England. And sure, I was born in a different town, but Bloomington was the map of my heart. Bloomington was where I started coming out—and felt stifled in expressing it. Bloomington was where I had made most of my friends—and lost most of them as I came out. Bloomington was where I got my education—and had it taken away. Bloomington was where my art career budded—and smothered under a lack of opportunity.
What was I losing, really? My relationships with family were always awkward; perhaps they would benefit from distance. The economy would be far better outside my college town, where a Bachelor’s degree would get you $6.50 an hour and cup of coffee—and I didn’t even have the Bachelor’s degree. I was sure I would thrive where I could live out and proud. The past was behind me; a bright future lay before me. And my present?
We pulled into the downtown Chicago station for a 2 1/2-hour layover. I knew one of the little shops in the station would have a travel sewing kit. My plan was to safety-pin together the ever-growing tear. I figured it worked for my punk friends, so why not me? Frazzled from a severe lack of sleep, I gingerly slipped six safety pins along the course of the rip. After all, it only had to hold eight more hours, right?
We stopped at the McDonald’s in Tomah, Wisconsin at the cusp of night and day. If Greyhound weren’t contracted to stop at McDonald’s, and were I not starving, I would have avoided that grease trap and tried to at least get a nap. Sleeping with a huge duffel bag squeezing me into a seat proved to be impossible. I blearily ordered a caramel sundae and an apple pie, hoping to God that no one in the restaurant noticed my deteriorating jeans, the rip now down to my knee. I had yet to learn Upper-Midwestern passive-aggressive behavior, to learn that they wouldn’t say anything until after I was gone. At least, I thought, I’m wearing boxers.
Minneapolis at last! I was crazy, I thought, moving to this city without ever visiting. But crazier things had been done. I just had to call my friend Chris to pick me up, and I could finally get rid of these jeans. Except… “Sir, I understand your situation, but there are families with young children in here, and I’m going to have to ask you to step outside the station.” Great, I’m in a strange city, half-naked, being kicked outside where I could get arrested. I crossed my fingers, hoping that Chris would hurry up. Indeed, a few minutes later, my chariot arrived, and the first thing we did was to go to his place for me to change my pants.
It is coincidence that I am posting this story on the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. You catch a glimpse of homophobia in my life in this story. Shepard’s death affected me profoundly, and I will write more about how so later.