Monday, November 2, 2009

Assimilation of Language

The Summer I was eight we moved from Framingham, MA to Hartsdale, NY. That Summer the cocktail crowd at the Riverdale Yacht Club would tell my mother "your children have awful Boston accents." Beefeater & Tonic in hand, and always in denial, she'd reply "Funny, I don't hear it." But by the second week of September I was pulled out of my new class for one-on-one speech therapy where instead of asking where "Mummy paked the ka," and adding an "er" to any word ending in a vowel (my own name included), I was taught to speak correctly. By Halloween I was speaking like a real New Yorker and no longer had to meet with the speech teacher in the little room.

Twenty-one years later after living in Mexico for a few months, friends from back home began commenting that I was "getting a weird accent." Even though my ability to speak Spanish was was on par with the average Mexican three year old, I'd picked up the accent of native Spanish speakers speaking English. On moving back to NY, the "weird accent" went away in a matter of days.

Then again, shortly after the move to Ohio "are-ange" became "or-ange," "warrter" became "wahter," and sometimes "soda" is "pop." Now when ever I'm back in NY I'm taken-aback by the strong New York accents in friends whom I previously had thought had none.

I've just always picked up the accents and dialects very easily. I'm also an excellent mimic. I could never understand people who spoke, say Italian for the first twelve years of their life but then spoke nothing but English for the next fifty years, AND STILL have a strong Italian accent. That would never happen to me. My speech patterns -- accent, vocabulary and grammar -- naturally assimilate seamlessly.

Now in this very different beauty school culture, I'm trying very hard not to stand out. Because I already stand out enough. On Friday I actually heard myself say "Where's that flat iron at?" I felt my grammar slipping all week -- the inexplicable urge to use double negatives, ending sentences in prepositions and the deletion of the verb "to be" from any sentence. Mr. McCardell (my high school English teacher) would TURN OVER IN HIS GRAVE. Interestingly, there are many, many people who easily slide back and forth from "speaking white," to "talking black." Just not many old white women like me. On the plus side I've got some great new vocabulary words. I'm seeing that like Yiddish, there are some Urban words that just perfectly express something I had no one single word for before. My favorite is "bitter," as in: Those teenagers, I don't know why they so bitter all the time. That puberty get to them.

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