Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The dialect dynamic

Within the past week, I have addressed people using phrases of speech delivered in American English, Texan English, Spanish, Hindi (at two unrelated settings 45 miles apart), Ebonics, what I call East Harris Urban (a local industrial sub-dialect very different from Ebonics), Amharic, and Mandarin (with the last two instances occurring just 15 minutes apart). 
What he said, in whichever language he was using at the time. 

Hillcroft at US 59.
I also cussed my broken clothes iron (no steam) in the hybrid English dialect of my birthplace, the unusually intricate linguistic variant that I was forced to completely disguise before I could get anything whatsoever accomplished as an independent businessperson in this neck of our southern American woods. 

I started speaking about our dog using some French while in her presence because she now comprehends far too much English for anybody’s good.  But it wasn’t the perfect Parisian French in which I was fluent so many years before I came to America, because that tongue has been influenced in the intervening time by the folks I’ve met from southwestern Louisiana. 

By far the most captivating of this week’s exchanges was a three-way earlier today that included myself, a black couple in a store checkout line in front of me, and the proprietor.  The distinguished-looking professional black woman, a would-be wheedler, was abruptly cut off by the proprietor as she attempted to negotiate the terms of the sale.  “Girl, WUSH yo’ NAME!” the native Mandarin speaker demanded authoritatively in flawless Ebonics.  As the black woman reverberated in silent shock, I looked at her husband and muttered in high amusement, “Y’all can attempt to debate with a Chinese shopkeeper if you want, but I can tell you right now who’s going to win.”  The man nodded slowly, the whites of his eyes saying all that needed to be said.

As I approached the counter to complete my own transaction, the proprietor grumbled mildly about customers and their unreasonable demands.  “It’s OK,” I said softly.  “The problem is that there are now so many different cultures here that nobody can remember when we’re supposed to haggle the price and when we’re not.  The only thing we know for sure is that we all have to do it at La Pulga!”  She smiled impishly as she completed my transaction, at which point I bowed slightly and said, “Xie xie!”  “You’re welcome!” she replied in the crispest possible English, throwing back her head and laughing with delight at my near-perfect rendition of a phrase that many attempt but few deliver accurately. 

What I wouldn’t give to see and hear this remarkable place a hundred years from today, because none of this diversity is going to fade away – it’s only going to become more and more intimately melded and mutually enriching. 

In the meantime, may there be peace on Earth, as there is in Houston. 

The scene late this afternoon on FM 2351 in Clear Lake.  There’s no way that our local universe could continue to unfold as it should unless a bunch of suburban white people waited patiently for an hour in an outdoor line to get their Christmas Eve tamales.  As they have done since time immemorial, right?

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