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Daisy Sjolseth

Professor Hampton

English 105

April 15, 2018

How Our Dialects Define

Since language is regional and cultural, it can influence the way we identify ourselves and others.

These regional languages are accompanied by certain cultural norms, traditions, and foods that are

specific to that culture and the people within it. Even though we can see how they are communicating on

the surface level, we are missing the cultural context and what it means to them as an individual. Our

diverse “language heritages” come from our various backgrounds, so the meanings behind our languages

will be different for everyone. These differences in meanings shouldn’t be erased or made to be

something else, they are what makes us individuals, allowing us to have conversations so we may all gain

more insight into lives that we don’t live, something that should instead be celebrated.

Growing up in Texas, I was exposed to a lot of Hispanic, especially Mexican, culture. Because of this, a

lot of the Spanish language and culture was incorporated into my everyday life, particularly in the

restaurants and grocery stores. In the donut sections of my local grocery stores, you would often find

delicious “conchas” (a Mexican sweet bread) and many restaurant menus had Spanish translations. I also

grew up with Jewish grandparents, so therefore Yiddish, and all of the cultural traditions that accompany

it, became a part of my world. Just like many others, the languages that I was exposed to shaped my

identity. With each came a new set of values and traditions which are integral in developing the way I

view myself. I am able to view and value the different parts of my heritage: the history that came along

with my grandparents’ immigration into the United States, and the cultural melting pot that I was able to

grow up in. Without this exposure, many would miss out on the different foods, beliefs, and ideas that

came along with these cultures.

Language is more than just words, it has the ability to impact the way that people view us and the

way in which we view ourselves. In my family, we use Yiddish words to identify specific family
members. My grandmother is Bubbe and my great-grandmother was called Bubbela. By incorporating

Yiddish, I am always able to appreciate my past and my identity. This is further explained in Anzaldúa’s

essay, "How to Tame a Wild Tongue," when the author describes how she knows seven different

languages and/or dialects (Anzaldúa 36). They are all different variations and dialects of one another, and

they all carry different meanings. When she speaks in "Tex-Mex," she feels comfortable and “at home”.

When people tried to deter her from speaking these languages, it caused her to feel as if they were

deterring her from being who she was, rather than celebrating their differences and the benefits that can

come from that diversity. This isn't only applicable to people who speak a completely different language,

but also to people who may speak a different regional dialect of English.

In "First They Changed My Name," Allen describes how she grew up in a very rural area in

Appalachia (Allen 1). When she went to school in a more urban environment, the teacher told her that her

name and the way that she spoke was wrong. They changed her name and taught her how to speak

“correctly,” according to their own views, without stopping to realize that Allen’s way of speaking was

just as valid as their own. By doing this, they caused her to think that the way that she used to talk and act

(and the way that her mother currently talks and acts) was incorrect. She began to see her mom as

ignorant just because she talked a certain way. This can have a detrimental effect on the relationship that a

parent and child have. A child should respect and admire their parents, but this creates the opposite effect.

Before Allen attends school, she views her mother with such veneration, as most children do. But, when

she begins to see her mother as improper, she begins to lose respect for her mother and speaks to her as if

she were her own child.

In the same way that Allen was taught to see her mother in a negative light, Amy Tan in her

essay, "Mother Tongue," is forced to see how language affects the way that her mother is treated by the

other people around her (Tan 1). She notices that they are treated with a lot more respect when they speak

"proper English." This was a clear demonstration that the way her mother spoke affected the way people

saw her. When she speaks in her "broken English," people think that she isn't as intelligent as she would
be if she spoke "correctly." But, as the author describes, the way in which one speaks doesn’t correlate

with their level of intelligence.

As I have progressed through my first year of college, I have been able to witness a variety of

different vernaculars, ranging from the Caribbean, Western Africa, Eastern Africa, New York, Louisiana,

and everywhere in between. But, despite the large variety of languages and dialects, I have not seen any

relationship in terms of intelligence. Many of the people in the honors programs at my school are

international students who, while they may have a different way of saying something, have incredibly

intuitive and creative ideas and thoughts. Essentially, the way in one talks or the place that they are from

have no influence on their level of intellect, so trying to fix the way that they speak wouldn’t provide any

benefit, it would in fact do just the opposite.

The cultural aspects that accompany each language, such as food, dancing, or traditions, show us

that our language determines a large part of who we are, and if we try to erase or hide these parts of

ourselves, it is easy to lose sight of our identity. In my family, the food that we cook helps us to identify

ourselves. Because my grandparents are Jewish, we celebrate holidays such as Hanukkah and Passover.

For both of those celebrations, they cook a variety of foods that signify who we are and where we came

from. The latkes at Hanukkah denote a part of the Hanukkah story in which the oil lasted for days beyond

expected, so we eat food fried in oil to signify that. For Passover, we eat the Seder plate, with each item

signifying a different part of the Passover story, along with unleavened bread to signify how we believe

that the Israelites left so fast, that they couldn’t wait for the bread to rise. While eating a ceremonial

dinner with lamb bone, bitter herbs, salt water, and an apple mixture (Charoset) may seem odd to an

observer, if they were to ask why, they would be able to see why this holiday, and especially the food that

accompanies it, is so important to millions of people.

Similarly, my dad’s cooking reminds us that we live in Texas. Although many of the beliefs and

people that live in Texas do not make me proud, it helps me remember the parts of Texas that do,

including the incredible southern hospitality and the eccentric city that I grew up in. His weekly cooking

of fajitas and breakfast tacos remind me of the diffusion of cultures occurring in my city and in my state.
In just being away from that cooking for college, it was difficult to find food out of the area that brought

me that same feeling of home, and when I did, I shared it with friends who might not have the same

natural connotations as I, or other Texans, do, but they were able to appreciate its meaning to those of us

who did.

It is not only the food that gives me and so many others that reminder of where they are from.

Similar to food, dancing carries identity as well. In Greece, they have festivals in which they participate in

different dances. The dances are extremely specific, so most everything that a participant does matters

and carries meaning. The speed, the position of the dancers (especially the women), the instruments used

to create the music, the spacing, and many more aspects characterize the meaning of the dance and its

place in their culture and identity (Filippou, 218). Each of these components help them to recognize their

past, present, and future as well as their social and economic standing in society. More broadly, this idea

can be seen in the traditions of different cultures. In the Kumeyaay community in Baja California, there is

a significant tradition of oral storytelling. They audibly tell each other stories that explain who they are

now, as well as their history. Different dialects of storytelling denote a variety of meanings in the stories

that they tell (Cuero). With each story that they tell, dance they dance, and food they eat, they are able to

learn about and embrace a part of who they are. If one were to take this away, it would be extremely

difficult to feel the same sense of belonging and community as they did before.

Our language makes us who we are, and when someone forces you to “fit in” or change your way

of speaking, they are ignoring the meaning behind your language and essentially asking you to disregard a

part of your identity. In my hometown of Austin, we have a lot of words and pronunciations that only

“Austinites” would understand. Because we are so close to Mexico, many of our street names are

Hispanic. But, because we also are part of Texas and the United States, there is still a rural accent added

to the pronunciation. Even though we know that we are saying it wrong, it has become a part of Austin

and the way that we refer to our city. No one tried to fit in either way, disregarding the rural or Hispanic

identity of our town, but instead created an identity that was specifically for us.
In the opposite way, one could see how when the Lithuania was taken over by the USSR, they

were forced to forfeit different parts of their language and tradition. Russian was declared the state

language and their vocabulary was stripped of certain words as a propaganda strategy. The government of

the USSR knew that by declaring the new state language, they would be able to gain a sort of power over

the Lithuanian people. If they don’t have their language to speak and are forced to use another, it is hard

for them to connect in the same way as they did before. When people are able to connect in that way, they

can build bonds and develop relationships with each other that would make it difficult for them to fully

lose their culture. In changing the state language and outlawing certain words, they made it harder for

people to rise against them, which increased their power over the Lithuanian people, because it is harder

to find community in which to rise up when one can’t even find themselves and their own identity.

The Russians also taught literacy to the new Soviet people. But, literacy was not “the simple

ability to read and write,” but it was instead the ability “to write properly” (Balockaite 3). This means that

even if one is able to communicate, they are considered illiterate if they can’t do so according to the

“proper” way. Citizens are more likely to seek help from Russian teachers if they believe themselves or

others are uneducated, which gives the teachers the opportunity to indoctrinate beliefs to the former

Lithuanians. This is demonstrated in the removal of certain words from their vocabulary. Words denoting

one’s power over another, such as miestras (master), policininkas (policeman), and nuomotojas

(landlord), were no longer taught or allowed to be in use. In the same manner, words that indicated any

economic advantage or disadvantage, such as turtingas (rich) or vargšas (poor), were wiped from the

vocabulary (Balockaite 4). This helped the USSR in their quest to institute communism around the world.

If there were no words that indicated any economic differences, did those differences even exist? This

self-doubt that occurred within many Lithuanians demonstrated how ignoring a part of language can have

a detrimental effect on our self-identity and the way that we view the world. Poor and rich alike were not

allowed to claim their identity, causing the world to disregard a part of who they were.

Through my exposure to Yiddish, Hispanic, and mainstream American culture, I am able to see

how our language (constituted of our words, food, dance, and culture) relates with the way that we carry
ourselves and the traditions that we hold. Because of this, it allowed me to see the importance of other’s

cultural traditions, languages, and beliefs, because when we are able to recognize our own identity, it can

have a profound impact on the way that we think about ourselves. It also helped me to realize how lucky I

was to know my past and be able to connect it to my present, since many people don’t know their exact

heritage or where they came from. Even though we are all different and have many different backgrounds,

these cultures can interact with one another and continue to keep its own values, exposing everyone to

more information than they would have every been introduced to before. These values and traditions are a

part of us, and it is something that no one should be able to take away or “fix” to be more “proper.”
Works Cited

Allen, Caffilene. “First They Changed My Name…: Deep in Appalachia, education came with a
price.” Prisms. Jan./Feb. 1994, Accessed 29
Oct. 2017

Anzaldua, Gloria. How to Tame a Wild Tongue. 1987.

Balockaite, Rasa. “On Ideology, Language, and Identity: Language Politics in the Soviet and
Post-Soviet Lithuania.” Language Policy, vol. 13, no. 1, 2014.

Field, M. & Cuero, J.M. “Kumeyaay Oral Tradition, Cultural Identity, and Language
Revitalization.” Oral Tradition, vol. 27, no. 2, 2012.

Filippou, Filippos, Dimitris Goulimaris, Vasilis Serbezis, Maria Genti, & Dimos Davoras.
"Collective identity and dance in modern urban Greece." Issues in Ethnology and Anthropology [Online],
5.1 (2010): 213 - 221. Web. 29 Oct. 2017

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Home Is Where The Heart Dwells, Harvard Blogs, 6 Feb. 2008,