I am an English teacher and American dialect junkie, and one of my favorite things about the first day of classes each semester is meeting my new students and having a captive group of guinea pigs. I introduce myself to my students, telling them a little bit about my hobbies, interests, and some strange but true facts about myself, and then I ask them to do the same. While they’re talking, I’m listening to them…and carefully assessing their dialect. Figuring out their town (or at least county, or, at the very least, state) of origin is so much fun! And often, I can guess. Among students from New Jersey, I can often pinpoint their place of origin within 10 miles or less. It spoils my fun when one of the students says, “Hi, I’m Melissa, and I’m from Cranford, NJ”—or even worse, when a student walks in wearing a sweatshirt with his town’s name emblazoned across the front of it!
Then, one blustery winter morning about five years ago, the tables were turned on me. After class, a student approached my desk and said to me, “Professor Harrington, for some reason, you remind me so much of one of my classmates from high school. You don’t look like her; it’s just that you talk like her. You have some of the same mannerisms and intonations. I know this is a weird question, but do you know her?” So, after a short conversation, we made a fascinating discovery: her high school classmate and I grew up several blocks away from each other and attended the same grammar school at the same time. She was one year behind my younger sister, and I was four years ahead of her older sister. My student’s classmate and I know each other. And we talk similarly, probably because we grew up among the same families, in the same parish, and with the same teachers. Even though we were seven grades apart and our days at our parish grammar school are long past, our common origin is apparent in our voices.
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of my graduation from grammar school. Being the sentimentalist that I am, I led the charge for the 24 of us in the Class of ’93 to have a reunion. And oddly enough, what struck me most was not how different we’ve all become, but how similarly we speak! Sitting between Sarah and Meg, I kept noticing the likeness in our pronunciation, intonation, and word choice. 20 years later! Amazing!
So, why am I writing this post? Because I’m thinking about the role that language has in shaping our identity. Even the nuances of our language can do so much. They can make us feel a sense of community with others or mark us as very different. And beyond our own feelings about the way we speak, others sometimes make instantaneous judgments about us, based on the way we speak. Linguistic difference and similarity is based not only on the language we speak but also on the way we speak it!