Sunday, July 14, 2013

Knowing your own voice

It happened late last Wednesday night as we were driving along a country road that seemed to be a thousand miles from anywhere. The girls in the backseat asked where we were, and my wife answered: “Driving through Whykickamoocow.”

Whykickamoocow. It's a word my wife picked up from me, and a word I picked up living in New Zealand 25 years ago. It means “out in the middle of nowhere,” but it says it so much more picturesquely than “Podunk” or “the boonies,” and it says so without the condescension in those other two phrases. It's one of a handful of linguistic and behavioral tics I've held onto all these years that still say how much my AFS experience meant to me.

I keep thinking of language as a way to communicate with other people. That Wednesday night I realized, that's not the whole story. My words aren't just how I communicate, they're my voice. They literally are a record of where I have traveled and the experiences I have had. They show who I am.

I grew up outside Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s. You won't hear me say “warsh,” except as a joke; my parents both came from outside the area, and as a consequence, the added R always has sounded wrong to me. Still, you can be sure I'll order a hoagie if we go to Subway together, and I just might wash it down with some pop.

And if yunz tell me that “Kennywood's open,” I know you want me to check my zipper, because you sure aren't talking about the amusement park.

I lived in New Zealand for all 1987, and it left its mark on me in ways other than having a pastoral word for remote locations. Thanks to the relentless teasing of my younger brother, I no longer use British words like “boot” and “bonnet” for the rear and front of the car. On the other hand, I still pronounce my host country's name as New Zilland.

Also, to this day I will not let anyone in my family eat a kiwi. A kiwi is a small, flightless bird, and a Kiwi is a native New Zealander. Those green fruits with a brown skin? Those are called kiwifruits. Calling them kiwis in my presence is a big no-no.

For that matter, I'm as likely as not to remind my girls that they need to wear their gumboots when they go outside during the rain.

After I graduated college, I moved to Haiti, where I lived and worked with a cast of missionaries from the Twin Cities. In their company, I learned to stop asking “Do you want to come with me?” and just ask people, “Do you want to come with?”

Among its many other gifts, Haiti itself gave me my first second language. From Haitian Kreyol I took the word “degaje,” meaning “to make do with what you have.”

I use that word often; my children also hear other phrases with stunning regularity: Ban-m men ou when I want them to give me a hand before we cross the street, or Tann ti momann, oui, when I want them to wait a moment.

And none of this even considers the bits of accent that flavor my speech and the speech of my children.  Sometimes, but usually only when we've been visiting her friends or her brother, I can hear the Southwest in my wife's voice. Often I've heard the city in the tones and cadences of my daughters' speech.

The way we speak can speak worlds about where we come from and where we've been. And as my wife inadvertently demonstrated last week, our words even can say something about whom we've been with and the company we keep.

Do you ever wonder what your words reveal about you?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.