Culture and Tradition: Language

We are exploring the seven different elements that make up what we call “culture.”

Language is the vehicle by which culture is passed on.  Should English be the legally defined national language of the United States?  What do we know about immigrants and their acquisition of English?  (For example, do you know that immigrants to the U.S. are learning English at a faster rate  than at any time in our history?)  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 adults making fun of the dialectical pronunciation used by some African Americans when saying the word “ask” (as “ax”).  Their conversation continued to denigrate that pronunciation as simply stupid and uneducated.  So, I butted in for a moment.  “What about our mutual friend from New Orleans?”  They both looked at me and said:  what do you mean?  I said:  “She pronounces ask as if it were ax.  Do you think she is stupid and uneducated?”

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

Perhaps we can try to hear the languages and the dialects around us as a kind of music. i am often reminded of this when I listen to Dolly Parton.  Her speech is the kind that I was taught is “wrong” and “uneducated” and “stupid sounding”, and yet, when she begins to sing, with that very same language, I smile; I dance; I begin to see life as beautiful.

Can we accept dialects as the unique and beautiful way that generations have passed on what is important to them to their children?  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 language and our attitudes toward it help to weave together the tapestry of culture?

Bob Patrick

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