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 had planned all week to post yesterday regarding the one-week anniversary of OccupyMN. But all week, I have been fighting issues related to my hypernychthemeral disorder, which always leaves me with having to choose either to let my sleep cycles run naturally, in which case it would take a few weeks to return to a diurnal schedule, or to take matters into my own hands by staying up a total of 36 hours or so and exhausting myself into an extra-long night of sleep, followed up by a “short” day and early bedtime, to help me get back to a diurnal schedule. It’s a no-brainer. I do not want to wait several weeks to live like everyone else. I am glad, though, to have sat with this article in my head an extra day, because various seemingly unrelated events over the course of the week have unfolded to shape and reshape what I am wanting to say here.
I got back into town after my chorus’s retreat last Sunday, and one of the first things I did was to head down to Government Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. This plaza, outside our county government building, has been renamed People’s Plaza by the protesters. The scene looked much like what you see in New York City right now, and in many cities across the country. There were a few hundred people present, a heartening number, but the first thought that crossed my mind was, how is this going to look when it is -30F out? The numbers have already dramatically dwindled as our night temps near 40F. I got to talk to some of the organisers and other protesters. One was a lovely young man named Osha Karow, who was inspired by Occupy Wall Street to purchase the domain name occupymn.org and get the ball rolling here. If you saw him casually, you would assume he fits the caricature with which the Occupy movements’ opponents paint the protesters: white, middle-class, and lazy. But to hear his story firsthand broke all such assumptions, a young man whose life fell apart because health issues well outside his control usurped his education, his job, and (ironically) his health insurance to treat his very serious medical situation. And, as I believe very much in the power of personal narrative, I believe that, behind each of these protesters that some are wont to dismiss, is a compelling personal story that has driven them to such actions as the protests.
There were some things about the protest I found truly inspirational. I saw it pulling together diverse ideologies and perspectives. I heard socialists and libertarians coming together for what they had in common, then taking the opportunity to engage each other in civil and meaningful discourse regarding their differences. Those who claim that this movement is a mishmash of nebulous and unfocussed anger forget that the civil rights movements was a coalescence of different causes, different frustrations, different people. I believe that this new movement can, in time and in much the same way, coalesce into something more focussed and more powerful.
But there is also cause for concern. Though the protest is drawing participants and supporting passers-by from many walks of life, those in their 20s by and large are driving the movement. They are committed to being “leaderless” and anarchic, but I wonder how much experience they’ve had working in anarchic situations. There is such a fear of anyone taking charge of anything that even the most minor decisions are brought before the daily “general assembly”. They do not understand the need to prioritise decision-making–that it is better for something small and minor to simply get done by someone, and that if every minor decision is brought to the general assembly, then there will be no time, and thus no chance to focus on, the major, long-term decisions. This, I believe, is why the protests appear unfocussed to outsiders, and this lack of focus could lead to the premature demise of the movement.
When people do step up to take care of minor tasks around People’s Plaza, they are chastised for trying to be “leaders”. These young people do not understand the difference between someone taking leadership by force, and someone rising to a place of leadership simply by being themselves. The latter are chastised at the movement’s peril. I cannot think of any significant social movement in history that succeeded without someone coming to the fore as, at minimum, a figurehead, if not a leader. These historical leaders often rose to prominence despite their own personal desire not to do so. But if those who are leaders by instinct are prevented from accomplishing even minor tasks, then this movement will sink in a mire of managing the mundane.
I am also concerned about the process of othering that has taken place. Othering is the social force of determining “us” from “them”, insiders from outsiders. The protesters feel justified in distinguishing “the 99” from the top 1% of earners, who control over 40% of the wealth in the United States, and thus, in many ways, control our day-to-day lives. They see “the 99” as the biggest umbrella term they can imagine, that pretty much anyone who they come across can relate to being in the bottom 99%. But in creating this “other”, this 1%, they first distance themselves from some of those who sympathise with their plight, from high-profile billionaires who are quite vocal in wanting Congress to restructure our economy to benefit the 99%, to protesters who themselves come from the 1% and want to work with the movement hands-on.
Some critics of the movement claim that this othering process both smacks of sanctimony–the 99% are pure of motive, the 1% are inherently evil–and allows the 99% to abdicate their own responsibility in helping the economy to decline by, for example, building up untenable lifestyles through purchasing needless luxuries via “easy” credit, and staking claims and “rights” to a “middle-class” existence that is detrimental to the environment and to global economic development. I am in full agreement with both these critiques. I feel like the Occupy movement wants to build solidarity through a message of equality across races, religions, and (most) classes, etc, but they undercut their message of equality by stating, overtly and otherwise, that the 1% are ontologicallly, innately different. This is why my participation in the protests has mostly been confined to a message of “love the 100%”. I chant, “I have seven billion brothers and sisters,” and rattle off who all that includes, including those the left love to vilify. I perform my song, “Love The Way You Hate Me”. I challenge the notion that the 1% are fundamentally different at every opportunity. I plant the seed, I get people to think. And if “we are in this together,” then that means we must take responsibility for our mistakes, both individually and collectively, as well as seek to become part of the solution.
However, my personal belief that no-one is fundamentally evil takes a beating sometimes. One friend of mine points out that my telling the 1% (or homophobes, or what have you) that I love them is like standing in a field with a raging bull charging me, and me offering to talk with the bull and give it a big hug. (I say the analogy falls apart because I am a bull, too.) But late Thursday night, I took pause.
My neighbours in my building enjoy watching what passes for investigative journalism today (think truTV, for example). When I go to the TV room in my building, I can’t just change the channel, so if I choose to be in there, I choose to watch what my neighbours have on until I can change the channel per our community rules. I’m glad they didn’t change the channel Thursday night. They showed a recreation of the Jaycee Dugard abduction, imprisonment, and rescue. To see all that Phillip Garrido did, the layers of deceit and evasion, the unfathomable abuse he laid upon an innocent child, to see how he built his entire life around this cruelty, it becomes almost impossible to separate the man from the acts.
Am I lumping the wealthiest amongst us in with Phillip Garrido? No; my point is that my belief that anyone could be ontologically, fundamentally evil has been shaken, and thus leads me to question whether my belief that othering is in all cases wrong. I discussed my principle with someone the other day. He said that, a few nights prior, he saw a man surrounded by about a half-dozen scantily clad women whom he ordered away from him to go “do their thing” and to be sure that “he got his cut”. Clearly, the man was a pimp. My acquaintance remarked that, if he had passed by that man right after the incident, and the man tripped on the sidewalk and bloodied himself, my acquaintance would not have lent him a hand up.
Because I am processing the nature of evil, I am having to confront my own belief in the process of othering, and how it relates to the 99%/1% dichotomy. I will say this: I have often compared money to alcohol–good and enjoyable in reasonable doses, but addictive, controlling, and destructive in excess.
There are those who say the protesters are spoiled. In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a couple of days ago, a commentator, a Tibetan immigrant to the Twin Cities, argued that Americans have the best standard of living anywhere, and that it was unpatriotic to argue otherwise. She related her own harrowing personal story of what it was like for her family to escape from China to India, of how she was placed in an Indian boarding school with no idea of if or when she’d see her family again. I will not argue that even the poorest Americans fare better than the average citizen in many countries, and I cannot disregard the woman’s story for a moment, as it has been relived countless times by immigrants to America over the century. But (speaking as someone who last had ancestors come to America over 200 years ago–some by force), I cannot understand how it is unpatriotic to say that one’s country has the ability, resources, and potential to improve itself, to have faith that it can do so. Those who chant the mantra that “the United States is the best country in the world” stand against quantifiable data: in terms of education, health care, and physical and technological infrastructure, amongst other arenas, the United States is not #1, or even in the top ten. And the bottom 10% in a number of countries fare significantly better than the bottom 10% in the United States. The United States can do better. Some of us have faith that it can.
Will the protests effect change? One friend believes that not only will they be ignored by those in power, that the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow, until mass homelessness and starvation lead to civil war. I told him simply that I am going to fight against that eventuality. I fully believe that the era of the American Empire, like all empires throughout history, is ending. The difference will be whether the empire will go out in a fizzle or a bang. A fizzle would mean a cutting back of military and world economic dominance, resulting in a refocussing of those resources into education, health care, and infrastructure–in short, an acceptance that there are much worse things than being #2. A bang would be my friend’s scenario: chaos, destruction, and war. I daresay almost any of us would prefer the fizzle to the bang.
So I will back the protests, though still in my contrarian way, because I believe it is unhealthy and unwise to “stand against” the 1%, for they too are my brothers and sisters, I want good for them, as for the protesters, as for anyone. What of my epiphany regarding the problem of evil? My views, like the protests, are sure to evolve over time, and it is too soon to tell what they will evolve into.