[Written with a white-hot urgency]
I grew up in rural Virginia—the sort of rural where the roads lacked lines until recently and the bridge we required to circumvent a twenty-minute drive took nearly ten years to be replaced. In winter, our backroads were lousy with ice and ushered in snow days for the county. And when the ice hung thick on the powerlines and trees, and our house fell into shadows and silence, we huddled around a wood stove, sometimes for a week. Time worked differently in our neck of the woods.
My childhood was wild with livestock. My siblings, cousins, and I spent weekends and summers climbing hay bales and frequenting the mom-and-pop “QuikStop” for double-dip ice creams, winters skating across frozen ponds in our shoes on snow days, our backroads frozen over.
I never gave this upbringing a second thought. I was a child of bluegrass and old country music, banjos, and gospel—the music of the South.
But culture can be cruel.
When I could understand what I was watching on television, I discovered my lifestyle was “backward.” Comedians would make light of us, our dialect. Television would typecast us as inbreds sharing teeth between families. (My little brother learned while we were in college that our well water didn’t have fluoride.) People shrugged off the language I knew as a marker of inferiority. Southerners were rednecks—named for the sunburnt patches on our napes, scorched from working in fields. Poor, white, and uneducated.
In early high school, I invited a boyfriend to my grandfather’s annual party, held at the family farm because barns are as much for storing people and booze as livestock. The itch of hay and scent of the fields, the twang of the mandolin and scratch of the fiddle. (I can’t remember when I learned the latter was synonymous with violin; they existed in different worlds.) This boyfriend—urban compared to my rural—admitted quite early his bewilderment; he couldn’t grasp what we were saying in our foreign vernacular. We were divided by language.
I didn’t have as deep a drawl as those around me. My parents created their own speech patterns, passed them to their children. My father, the English teacher, was a stickler with language. The double negatives and ain’ts and elisions symptomatic of the Southern brand of English we understood but never used, at least not in front of him.
The sophisticated culture I longed to understand told me everything I was—who I was—was wrong. And it’s a terrible thing: to be a child and believe yourself ineffectual, inherently flawed.
When I left for college, I glossed over my upbringing when speaking to classmates—the children of senators and diplomats and admirals, freshly pressed from the finest prep schools in the country. Their outfits cost more than my semester books, their cars four years of tuition and board. If only they had been merely wealthy; they were incredibly intelligent too. Perfect SAT scores and fluent commentary on Hegel and Locke, masterful in managing academics and extracurriculars—triple threats on stage, the classroom, the kegstand—using words I had never heard spoken aloud before.
Maybe I believed they could sense the meanness of my history, the dirt beneath my fingernails from raking stalls, the slight twang in my voice when I said iron or slipped y’all in conversation. It goes without saying this is nothing to be ashamed of—to ever be ashamed of—but when you’re young and desperate to be welcomed into a world you don’t yet understand, you will do anything to feel like you belong.
Our culture told me class was a matter of dialect. We see this today when people alternatively sneer at and co-opt African-American Vernacular English or chide non-native speakers for mispronouncing or misplacing words, as if we could do better in theirs. Because of my penchant for language, I sometimes attract those who do not know me well and hope they’ve found a fellow snob, someone to whom they can complain that someone dared say ax instead of ask. How savage. What is our language coming to? they say.
It’s doing the same thing as always: evolving.
People are more than the way they speak, but we are nurtured to believe that certain dialects are a mark of the uneducated, that to sound intelligent, we must speak as if we are drafting an essay (the verbal complement to David Bartholomae’s Inventing the University). It wasn’t until graduate school that I understood the difference between prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. The former applies proper grammar to speaking; it would have you use whom instead of who or I instead of me when making comparisons like “She speaks much better than I” (because the implied speak tells us so). In contrast, descriptivism reflects reality. It is fuzzy and adaptive, allowing what the written word does not. We have rules for writing because writing stands alone. Speech includes an audience—a feedback loop. If the purpose of speaking is communication, it doesn’t matter if I twang—throw in ain’t as I wish—as long as my audience understands.
Unfortunately, many people don’t think like this. We are caught in the belief that how we speak matters more than the words we say.
I don’t live with many regrets—nothing earth-shattering, worldview-cleaving. Nothing to make me wish for time machines or another life to ruin. My choices have crafted a person I like most days, a person I like much more than the one before I sloughed my prejudices. Still, I have a list of things I wish I could tell a younger me.
I wish I could tell her she was enough. That her worth could not be affected by the way she spoke—the way she said iron—and that the way her accent comes out when she gets angry is a quirk her future husband will adore.
I say all of this with a touch of envy, that a younger me might have heard this at an age when it would have mattered. Before I hid my twangs and cut out my tongue, heedless to what I was losing.