Watch Your Language

Sometimes I’m surprised that I didn’t become a linguist, and then I remember just how much math and statistical analysis is involved in that field and I recall why I didn’t go far in that field.

But honestly, I think language is just the coolest. Even when thinking that gets me in trouble.

Sometimes my extreme interest just labels me as terribly nerdy, which I can deal with. For example, when I was in college and realized that we had school-provided access to the OED online, there was a week or two where I spent several hours a day just looking at etymologies and getting excited. This had nothing to do with my schoolwork. If you’ve ever been around to witness that epiphany moment where I realize why a word is structured the way it is, you’ll know what I’m talking about. In high school, I tried to make all of my friends read “A Clockwork Orange” because it is written in a pseud0-Russian-slang-riddled dialect of English that makes it almost impossible to understand for the first few pages. I can’t get ENOUGH of that stuff.

Sometimes, though, what I intend as just honest fanatical enthusiasm gets interpreted as something more malicious. When I was around eight, some friends of the family came over who were of German descent and so had learned British English. Their little girl had a great British accent, and after ten minutes I started trying to emulate her. I thought she sounded so cool, and I wanted to be able to do the same things with the language that she did. Next thing I know they’re packing up to go home and all the adults are scolding me for making fun of their poor delicate flower.

My close friends know to brace themselves when I start drinking now. Not only because I like to speak other languages when I’m tipsy (Mujhe sharab bahut achha lagatha hai!) but because at some point it will turn into an Accent Fest. Indian, Cockney, Irish, Southern, RP, you name it. I’ll get stuck in a mode of speaking and will start having too much fun to care about how annoying I’m being.

Or consider what happened when I watched all of “The Wire” in a period of a few months. The characters in that show have such a rich and expressive vocabulary, and it’s so consistent (because that’s the way people in these areas of Baltimore actually speak) that you begin to pick it up over the hours and hours you spend watching. Like any time I’m exposed to a new patois or dialect or vocabulary, I started to get very excited about these new ways of expressing myself, and started to incorporate some words and phrases into my daily interactions. Here’s the problem: I am a college-educated middle-class white woman from Boston, not a working-class black woman from Baltimore. When I say things like “finna” instead of “gonna” (or “going to,”) that doesn’t necessarily come off as “Oh, this young woman is passionate about language and exploring her means of expression!” It can instead come off as, “Wow, that chick is RACIST.”

I of course know that I don’t mean to be racist, whether it’s while I’m trying to figure out how exactly to position my tongue to get the retroflex sound of an Indian accent or whether I’m trying out some of the figures of speech I’ve heard in some excellent television. Unfortunately, other people don’t live inside my head (also fortunately, because that would get really crowded) and don’t always know this. Is it the biggest deal in the world as far as interpersonal communicative problems go? No, of course not. Is it pretty easy for me to be sensitive and not risk offending someone? Yes, it is. Do I forget sometimes? …yes. Yes I do.

What brought this entry on is that I now get to work on a daily basis with some pretty spectacular examples of Indian English. I will be the first to say that this English is leagues–LEAGUES better than my Hindi. It nearly always makes sense in context and shows a sophisticated understanding not only of the language but of a very technical subset of the language having to do with search engines. And yet, from the point of view of someone obsessed with language and very well-versed in all kinds of English, I find them–


Delightful and adorable.

Which sounds patronizing! And of course I don’t mean it that way! These people could school me in business three ways from Sunday. I am not their patron (boss, father-figure, Latin root). I just honestly love the phrases that they throw my way.

So in sum: If I share with you any (wonderful) examples of the language I see coming at me from work, bear in mind that there are no neo-colonial paternalistic patronizing overtones intended, and if you feel like there are echoes of those things there because I am who I am and my colleagues are who they are, please let me know and I will stop. I don’t want to hurt the feelings of anyone, just like I never meant to make fun of that little German-British-American girl. But until then, I can’t help but fall in love with “pre-poning,” (opposite of post-poning), “snaps” (photographs), and “homely women” (good home-makers, positive adjective).

Keep it coming, team. You make my day, all day, erry day.




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