I’m a-fixin’ ta tell ya a li’l ‘bouts where I’m from; where I moved to; hier war ich schon1; 我學到的語言2; y su efecto en la forma en que hablo3. This linguistic autobiography will tell you about my language exploits from the nether-reaches of the Appalachian mountains, to the high-plains desert of Colorado, across the far-east island of Taiwan, and deep into the heart of Sonora, Mexico. I could rattle-off a five-page list of where I’ve been; but these I have listed here have had the most significant influence on the way I speak.
Although I was born in Columbus, Ohio, I was raised until I was six on the outskirts of Athens (about 70 miles South East of Columbus: Right). There I unwittingly began my linguistic upbringing learning both Russian (from my grandmother) and Appalachian English. Athens, Ohio was considered a big city for Appalachian folk. It was also a gateway town into the heart of the Appalachian dialect. In Athens, you could find it all; standard English; southern English; African American English; Scottish English (just to name a few). For me, Athens was all about a laid-back and politely informal way of communication. There was never any urgency in how we spoke. The foremost feature that stuck with me for several years was use of the word “done” as an adverb discourse marker. “I done watched that movie three times.” Or, “He done got himself in a pickle this time.” Sentences like these were common utterances from me until I was about 12 years old. This coupled with A-prefixing often had my (later in life) Colorado classmates staring at me blankly. “I was a-wantin’ to ride mah bike, but I done got me a flat tar. Damn chain done gone an’ broke too!” It took the culmination of several years of thoughtful and slow speech to break these habits, however, spending more than a week in the area puts me right back to square one.
I was six when my mother dragged me, my brother, and my sister to Arvada, Colorado. She promptly plopped us in the nearest evangelical church she could find; and that’s where the ridicule began. “Hick,” “redneck,” and “hillbilly” were just a few of the ‘honorific’ names bestowed on me and my siblings. For the first few months, I thought they were calling us those names because we were poor; until I realized that they weren’t calling the other poor kids the same names. It was the first realization that how I spoke affected how people perceived me. From that moment on, I was conscientious about every phoneme that made it’s was from me to others and from others to me. I strained my ears to hear the different ways people spoke. By the time I was 12, I had successfully eradicated the a-prefixing and the monopthongized dipthongs from my speech, and started using “done” in the “proper” context.
At 15, I returned to Ohio and was shocked at how biased I had become toward Appalachian English. I was there, having intelligent conversations about math with someone who was saying that the “squahr root of pahi cyoubed tahms the fahrce per squahr inch gives ya’ the base fer the coh-effishunt of vector gravity wHen the angles er suhbtracted.” I found myself correcting what they were saying in my head for the span of about a week… Right until the I uttered the following: “I was a-tryin’ to figer the quantum constants that done effected mah baselahn fer mah M-theory varables.” This was my next profound linguistic moment of clarity. I understood at that moment that moment that you couldn’t call people dumb just because they speak a dialect from where hunting preempts education for three weeks every year.
I had come full-circle back to the church when I was six. I understood why the kids at my church acted the way they did around me, and why they thought I was a hillbilly from the way I spoke. In general, the culmination of this experience shaped my attitude toward languages and their speakers. I became interested in not only what other people were saying, but also how they were saying it; what meaning was hidden inside those sounds they made. This change in thought is directly responsible for the first non-English (or non-Russian) language I studied; Spanish.
When I started studying Spanish, I felt it rather odd at how incredibly prescribed the rules were. It was so vastly different from English, and yet so beautiful. I couldn’t get the structure at first; and would often superimpose Spanish words over English grammar only to be chided repeatedly by my teacher for doing so. At 16, I signed-up for a mission trip to Hermosillo, Mexico (Left), where I immersed myself in Spanish and the Mexican culture. There, in Hermosillo, language had opened-up an entire new universe of thought for me; one that was not Appalachian English or Standard English. I began to see how people’s way of thinking was reflected through how they spoke.
Almost immediately after returning from Mexico to the US, I went back to Ohio to live with my aunt. My aunt had worked with army intelligence ion the 1960’s and had been stationed in Berlin. Now, she was translating high and low German books as well as other supporting texts from as many as 14 other languages. I was fascinated. She then explained how some of the books she was translating were over 400 years-old, and the language they were written in conveyed the mentality of the population at the time they were written. She handed me a book written in German and said “here, read this.” “I can’t read German,” was my reply. To which she said “just pronounce the letters how they sound and see if anything sounds familiar.” Thus began my first lesson in German which consequently taught me how many language are very closely related. The title of the book should have given it away; Deutsch Grammatik.
From that point on, I studied German and Spanish with equal enthusiasm. By the time I was 18, I was ready for something new. I was headed back to college, but this time, I was focused on linguistics. Instead of trying for the “easy A” and taking Spanish or German for college credit, I decided to broaden my horizons and delve deeper into the Asian languages (of which I had only picked-up a few words here and there from various Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants). As fate would have it, I found my next language muse; Chinese. Looking at it (the traditional characters anyhow) was like looking at 5000 years of art mingling at a cocktail party on pages of my text books. As the characters danced in front of me the construct of ideograms slowly leaked into my skull. The grammar was simple, but the fact that each symbol represented a word or idea was intriguing. Although there were numerous phonological writing methods for Chinese, none of them seem to capture the eloquence and depth with which the characters visualized the language. Consequently, studying Chinese introduced me to my wife, who happened to be from Taiwan, and ultimately led to me living in Tu-Cheng, Taiwan where I was once again immersed in a different realm of thought and awareness (Figure 3). There, I not only learned Mandarin, but Taiwanese, Cantonese, Hakanese, and strangely, Japanese.
Overall, I find myself very fortunate to have had the experiences I did with language. These experiences have led to a better understanding of people in general and made me more accepting of different thoughts and values. The beauty in the melody and tone of every language is something we all should appreciate. But even more so, is the meaning and thought which drives us to communicate in the way we do. Although I’ve picked-up a smattering of other languages, these that I’ve mentioned here were distinct revelations in how I view language as a whole. I hope that I will keep learning new languages and maintain the propensity to internalize and understand them for their role in the grand scheme of how we will be communicating in the distant future.
1 hier war ich schon – German: Where I’ve been
2 我學到的語言 – Wo Xue De Yu Yan – Mandarin (Traditional): The languages I’ve Studied
3 y su efecto en la forma en que hablo – Spanish: and their effect on how I speak.