Language, like money, facilitates exchanges. Those exchanges include any number of possibilities, including ideas, experiences, hopes, sorcery and folklore … human evolution.
And despite popular beliefs, most humans are polyglots, speaking a number of languages in addition to their dialects and jargons. Place a Scientist, an Engineer and Nurse in one room speaking English and have them make a presentation on research in their fields of enquiry and you’ll see what I mean.
In fact, formal education exists for this very reason, to expand our vocabularies, sometimes specific to certain topics, people and places, other times for a general audience (of other formally educated persons).
Try to imagine a scene where you’ve a young lady proficient in “urban” English who goes to a Law firm for a position and is not accepted for the position. She would probably, if American, sue for discrimination, and likely specify that as racial discrimination. Everyone in the United States can imagine this scenario without much effort, for this very situation has been cause of contention in the U.S. between Americans in the workspace for most of the 20th century. Affirmative Action is the result of such charges. And yet, the interviewer will most often clarify that speech, carriage, and presentation lacked in the candidate – code words for “you do not communicate vocally in the manner we need.”
In theory, the two individuals (interviwer and interviewee) speak the same “language;” however in the job market, specifically in telecommunications, a range of vocal possibilities is an asset, and in some cases, obligatory. So, if for instance, the employee has command only of his specific city/neighbourhood dialect, has never traveled outside of that city, and must communicate with a client from another side of the country with a similar upbringing, then effective communication can be dodgy. That dodginess can effect the marketing of a product and money, which then determines staffing and pay. Serious considerations, indeed.
I define multilingualism as proficiency in any number of vocal settings and experiences. That can include interpretation of past historical times and events in time and space, music, transculturation, sports and so on. For many in the Americas, and perhaps in other places, multilingualism, in the narrow sense (of speaking multiple “languages”), represents brilliance, as if it were impossible to exhibit proficiency in multiple forms of vocal communication. It’s not their fault entirely, I find. Intercommunication and transcommunication are concepts that are absent in most curricula across the Americas, exception given to very specific postgraduate disciplines, such as Law and Medicine. Patient-seeing Physicians will all confirm the importance of clear communication across disciplines and class. If only Physicians understood one another, then what an insular world that’d be. Not surprisingly, in American cultures, individuals working in Medicine are socially viewed as brilliant, whereas persons in Marketing are not.
So, for many, language command has a very direct class register. In the United States, many Americans go one step further by racially marking the speaker based on his/her tonality, lilt, articulation and vocabulary, in other words, “the way he talk.” This is where the idea of “talking white” and “talking black,” common expressions and ideas used by many U.S. inhabitants.
Articulation and word choice, in particular, can resonate profoundly in the souls of Americans in many places. In the U.S. South, depending on one’s phenotype, (s)he may be said to be “talking proud [or] proper.” And in this system of codes, if one “talks proper” then one is undeniably proud. “Speaking proper,” in the South was a tactic used during Jim Crow Segregation to “keep [some] people in their place,” indicating that word choice and articulation were of the exclusive usage of only a select few. Shattering those class boundaries could have dire consequences in some places, like Albany, Georgia, or Scottsboro, Alabama, famous for spectacle lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Seventy years later, these same expressions are still very common, even though the “problem of the [...] line” in a legal sense has been been eradicated. The idea of staying in one’s “place,” in popular beliefs, has not, on the other hand.
Yet, language can be powerfully empowering as well. It can facilitate assimilation into new regions and nations, which in turn can determine job placement and new friends.
England is very class conscious and language (apart from material valuables) usually informs that class in British society. How many people watch weddings of the UK royal families in comparison to those watching weddings of the family members of the Prime Minister? And when foreigners, including Anglophones from other regions, do not speak English, then it clouds understanding of the (im/e)migrant’s class status. From there, the foreigner is either reduced to an “immigrant” identity or, less derogatorily, is referred to by his/her nationality. Either way, (s)he is essentialized as representing a monolithic identity of some kind.
It can be particularly sticky among an American and a Brit, though, because in principle, they speak “the same language.” But not only are there lexical, intonation and inflectional differences between the two “languages,” but there’s also an orthographic difference as well. And, the assumption is that, because the two speak “the same language,” that whatever is expressed in writing and is spoken, should/must be understood. To complicate this vocal exchange, all sorts of false cognates between the two “languages” exist, which can be a turn-on in the United States, but an insult in England.
But the contact between the American and Briton sparks an indelible change in both of them in ways that the Brit and the American are incapable of articulating. The American may be thinking “Oh! my! god! what on Earth is this person sayin?!” and the Brit thinking “These Americans all sound so uneducated!” Yet, linguistic transformations are sure to take place underneath their very noses. The contact informs the experience of the two individuals and that alters beliefs, pre-conceived ideas and thus language. This very phenomenon has been the careers of great linguists such as Benjamin Lee WHORF and Edward SAPIR and a new sub-field of Linguistics called Contact Linguistics.
Some foreigners from other English-speaking regions who are Anglophiles with particular affinities for England and its people make conscious efforts to assimilate, or blend in, absorbing all the anglocismes they can. Their passion and affinity lead to quick absorption and awareness of English.
That’s all great; what happens, though when they phone family or friends in the U.S., send a text or Facebook with an American? Two things can happen. Anglicisms may seep into the American’s choice of words, inflection or intonation without his/her knowledge. (S)he only is now aware because the American in the U.S. has pointed it out. On the other hand, another American living in Britain may consciously use anglicisms here and there to spice up (or down?) his/her American English. This latter scenario can be perceived by Americans living in the U.S. as “flaunting” and “trying to be something [one] ain’t.”
Those transformations are not sure to be well received, however. Folks “at home” may react in sometimes violently emotional ways, indicating that the American living in Britain is losing his “sense of self,” his “place,” his “home.” Just this week in a post on Facebook I unknowingly used the International English spelling for ‘program’ (programme). One of my contacts cheekily said “You spelled program wrong. Dont [sic] go get all limey on us.” I first had to look up the definition for “limey” because I had never heard the word before, but I learned that it was a pejorative expression used to refer to Britons. Confused, I asked “So, it’s wrong because it is in British English? Does that intimidate you?” He responded “Think global ACT LOCAL,” and got two thumbs up for it. I thought to myself “whatttttttt?!” Similarly, a friend from Brooklyn who I was chatting with on Facebook messenger told me “You’re American ASS!” I had no idea where that came from so asked for clarity. He said “Americans say ‘ass,’ [not 'arse'].” And my globetrotting experience from years of being Cabin Crew (Flight Attendant) kicked in. “That’s a broad generalization; no?” I responded.
Not long after I moved to England, I went back to New Iberia to do some research for my studies. I ran into a colleague (classmate) from High School who I had not seen in over 11 years. A lot can change in a person in 11 years, especially between the ages of 18 and 30. We went through the typical motions of getting reacquainted. Of course he asked where I lived. I mentioned that I had recently relocated to England, but that I had been in the New York City region for 7 years. He immediately said “Ya even sound like them people. Wow. That’s good man.” Did I really sound British after only having been in England 2 months?
My mom and aunt joke around about the probable linguistic changes all the time. Mom in particular, in the beginning, would say “Boy, you’re going to be talking just like them people” and she’d begin the sounds of what she thinks British English is. It was actually far from the mark, as she was using the references to the “proper English” concept used so commonly in English in the U.S. South. And while I don’t think my speech has changed all that much, and I don’t know if there are any notable changes recognised by mom, she always reminds me “Don’t forget your mother is here [and not in England].”
Some bicultural and multicultural people will navigate between cultures without the slightest effort, just as bilinguals and polyglots will for speaking more than one “language.” Apparently, I’ve not absorbed enough anglicisms to properly navigate between US English and International English forms without mixing the two in the same space. I keep thinking that everyone knows that the US is not a monolith, and has not been closed from migration and exterior influences, so what is “American English,” anyways(?); especially in a country where speech rules are overwhelmingly laxed.
In any case, the changes are definitely taking place, and have been for 31 years, whether I like it, want it, seek it, or not. Indeed, I have traveled about the planet rather extensively, but for me, all humans and their cultures are connected and that connection influences thought and action in ways not always so tangible.
I guess for this reason, I both think, and act globally; the globe is my home, my locale.
That experience can be summarized in one word: humanity.
That adaptability all humans have.
“We are the world, we are the people” Stevie WONDER sang.
He gets it.
It’s a matter of time before everyone else does.