Culture and Tradition: Language

Language is a  vehicle by which culture is passed on.  If that sounds a bit too clinical, consider how these questions tend to make us in the U.S. respond.  Should English be the legally defined national language of the United States?  What do we know about immigrants and their acquisition of English?  How do we feel when we are in public spaces and we hear languages other than English being used around us?  What sort of language hangups do we have in this culture?  Do we recognize the various dialects even of English that we all speak?

Years ago I overheard two white people whom I knew, making fun of the dialectical pronunciation used by some African Americans when saying the word “ask” (sounding like “ax”).  Their conversation continued to denigrate that pronunciation as something “stupid and uneducated”.  So, I butted in for a moment.  “What about Jane?”  They both looked at me and said:  what do you mean?  I said:  “Jane (a mutual friend) pronounces ask as if it were ax.  Do you think she is stupid and uneducated?”

Jane was born and raised in New Orleans. Jane was also white.  “Why is Jane’s pronunciation not stupid, but the African American’s pronunciation of  same word in the same way an example of stupidity?  Is it just because Jane is white?”

I was raised in a rural community in the northern part of Alabama. My wife was raised in a suburban neighborhood of Long Island, NY.  Though we have been together for 33 years, living in the South, our children have long thought it amusing that when we are on the phone with our respective families “back home” that our speech changes, reverting to the dialects of English that we grew up speaking in those communities.


Can we hear the languages and the dialects around us as a kind of music?  Can we accept dialects as the unique and beautiful way that generations have passed on what is important to them to their children, as the music that connects us to family and to communities?  Do we believe that there is a superior language, a superior way of using language in everyday discourse? And if upon examination we find that we do believe that, who taught us that?  Whom and whose way of speaking were we taught to consider inferior?  Can we begin to hear how social organization, inherent rules and language begin to weave together the tapestry of culture?

As we go out into the world today, we can choose to hear the languages used around us as a kind of music filling the air, weaving a culture that is larger than any single culture that we already know.

Bob Patrick

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