State of Bewonderment Ep. 5
The Color of Language
A few months ago, my mom was psyching herself up for a difficult conversation with my dad’s doctors. Things felt pretty dire at that point, and she was determined to go into his next appointment, ask hard questions and get concrete answers. At the time, my dad was too weak to do much speaking for himself, she knew the responsibility to be his advocate fell upon her shoulders.
“I’m going in loaded for bear,” she declared, waving her notepad at me.
This was a new mom-ism, but it felt appropriate to the situation. Never mind that my mother has never hunted a thing in her life and wouldn’t know the first thing about how to load anything.
A few weeks later, she was telling me about giving my sister a similar sort of pep talk.
“I had to talk to her like a Dutch uncle,” she said. She took a breath to go on before I interrupted her with peals of laughter.
“What the hell does that even mean?” I asked, snorting. “What does a Dutch uncle talk like?”
“You know,” she replied. She gestured with her finger pointed sharply, as if she were giving someone a talking-to. “Like that.”
I wondered if the Dutch uncles of the world would be offended by this phrasing.
My mother did not grow up in the country, despite what her vernacular might suggest. She also did not grow up in the South, which to my mind is rife with colorful turns of phrase. She grew up in South St. Louis, Missouri, and while Minnesota often considers that The South, she would never claim her heritage to be Southern.
In fact, no one in the South or in Missouri claims this to be true, and those I’ve queried from the South are downright offended by the notion. Nevertheless, I have met Minnesotans who cannot be convinced otherwise. I have no interest in trying to convince them of Missouri’s distinctly Midwestern and non-Southern tendencies, but the observation continues to bewilder me.
If I approach this from a place of curiosity instead of annoyance, I think, well, most of the nation is technically south of Minnesota. Minnesotans are far less ebullient; they are saddled with a term every newcomer grows familiar with: Minnesota Nice, which I have found to not be unlike Seattle Freeze, both terms alluding to the fact that people residing in these regions are quite friendly but will never invite you home for dinner. And while my experience does support the fact that Missourians are quite friendly, I don’t think friendliness is enough of an indicator of what makes up Southern culture.
I encountered similar views of the Midwest when I lived on the West Coast. All those states in the middle of the country were assumed to be basically the same, never mind that North Dakota could not be more different from, say, Indiana. It seems to me a bit of lazy thinking, but perhaps I’m being too critical.
This is a curious dynamic in itself: the perception of a place from those who have never lived and often even visited. How much credence to we allot these outside assessors?
Unusual turns of phrase are definitely not a uniquely Southern trait, either, despite the suggestion posited earlier in this essay. People say weird things all over and it’s often a point of pride. Ask any Minnesotan about Duck, Duck, Grey Duck and you’ll get a whole speech about the “correct” terminology for the fowl in the childhood game.
Ten years ago, The New York Times shared a quiz that was intended to locate your regional dialect. There were questions about what you say when you refer to a group of people (you all), how you refer to caffeinated drinks (soda) or what you call a divided road that you travel upon at high speed (freeway or highway). The quiz was a bit hit or miss for me, it suggested that my dialect was rooted in California or Kansas City, one half of which is true. The quiz has been shared millions of time over the years, which indicates to me that people are fascinated by the way we talk.
My aunts used to refer to “youse” or “youse guys” when speaking to me and my cousins. I was totally baffled when I moved to Minnesota and someone directed me to a “parking ramp.” Colloquialisms, vernacular, idioms, expressions, dialect. Whatever you want to call colorful language, I am delighted by it.
I took a Poetry in Translation class in college. It was the hardest creative writing class I’ve ever taken, hands down. The challenge of taking a poem written in German or Italian and trying to re-create it in English in a way that is an accurate translation and sounds beautiful is way more difficult than you’d expect. It’s like a creative Rubick’s Cube.
Language is a living, breathing thing. Words shift meaning. The dictionary has to be regularly expanded, updated, changed. This tool we use to communicate in dynamic and ever-changing ways has to morph and adapt. How can you not be enchanted by the way twenty-six symbols representing sounds can be combined in the most beguiling ways? Not to mention the symbols representing sounds in other written languages.
I asked my mom where her delightfully odd phrasing comes from and she just laughed and shrugged. Maybe it was her years working in the halls of the Missouri State Capitol that put her in contact with folks from all corners of the state and all walks of life. Maybe she sponged it up the way my accent slips into Missouri or Minnesota depending on where I spend my time and who I am talking to. Something about that is delightful. It reminds me that we are all constantly shifting and changing, too. Even the seemingly insignificant interactions can pollinate a shift in our vernacular. How lovely a thought.