Taking My Language With Me

I grew up in the Deep South in a small town called Highland Home, Alabama. I’ve lived on dirt roads at times in my life. I know how to use the words “ain’t,” “y’all,” and “yonder” correctly, and I still use them today. In addition, I’m an English major.

The first time I experienced a kind of oppression to my own language, or at least the first time I gave it any notice, was when I was doing yard work for this older lady in Auburn. I threw out the word “ain’t” in a conversation we were having while cleaning her lawn chairs. She stopped me mid-sentence and told me I should be ashamed of myself for talking like that, especially since I am an English major. She said she had a friend from England who visited a week earlier that would be appalled at my abuse of the language. There I was, 21 years old, and a 65-year-old woman was teaching me how to talk.

I gave her opinion a lot of thought over the next few days, wondering if I needed to focus on how I spoke. Since I am an English major, shouldn’t I at least speak correctly? I finally decided my speech is part of who I am, part of my experiences, part of where I came from. Bell hooks mentions, “We are transformed, individually, collectively, as we make radical creative space which affirms and sustains our subjectivity, which gives us a new location from which to articulate our sense of the world” (242). Because my speech is part of me, to undo it would be to strip that part away. It would strip away where I grew up, the people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve had. I would still like to say, “Me and Johnny went to the store,” as opposed to “Johnny and I.” I would still like to use “ain’t,” “y’all,” and “yonder” because of who I am. If I am to be a writer, one thing I do aspire to be in life, then I must carry my language with me. It is the voice of those places, people, and experiences, and that is what I will take with me.

And now I will do a spelling and grammar check to make sure this paper is not too out of line with the use of the English language because I wouldn’t want to start a sentence with “and” or use too many contractions. I’ve already added “ain’t” to my Microsoft Word dictionary this morning. I am resisting oppression.

Readings In Contemporary Rhetoric – Karen A. Foss, Sonja K. Foss, Robert Trapp
“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” – bell hooks (no, she doesn’t capitalize her name)

4 Responses

  1. ChristineM
    ChristineM Published |

    I’ve lived in California all of my life. Several years ago, while at work this guy tells me he likes my accent and asked me where I was from. Totally embarrassed, I said, “ummmmm, California”
    I guess he thought I was from Texas or something.
    I occasionally use the word ain’t and catch my self saying things like “You don’t do nothin’!”
    At least you have an excuse Justin. LOL!

  2. ChristineM
    ChristineM Published |

    No, I’m not Southern and I really don’t talk like that often but I have caught myself doing it before. I grew up in a small California town who claims “The Cowboy Capitol of the world.” Some of my high school friends (who still live in the same town) speak this way, it’s kind of annoying, lol. I really don’t know where I get it from. My dad was raised in Kansas maybe I picked up something from him…

  3. Rob Felty
    Rob Felty Published |

    Your language is certainly part of your identity! You happen to be unfortunate in that you speak a stigmatized dialect of English, but everyone speaks a dialect. In most parts of the world, people speak several languages and/or dialects. By all means, it is helpful to be able to write and speak a more standard dialect, but you don’t need to all the time. In fact, at times it could even be a detriment to speak the standard, e.g. if you had a construction job during the summer with other Alabamans. I’m sure they would ridicule you for saying “Johnny and I” instead of “me and Johnny”.

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