Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
My landlady Vera, a dear person who became a friend over the years, had immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden to the United States when she was a young bride in the 1950s and lived in the same small town ever since. She had visited her native country only infrequently over the years, and had forged and maintained her own unique and hard-won brand of cosmopolitanism in provincial New England. One year a young Swedish student came to the college for her graduate studies and I introduced her to Vera, hoping that each would bring the other a welcome taste of home. After a couple of visits, I asked the student her impressions; she mentioned one in particular, which she found quaint: my friend’s “Fifties Swedish.”
This remark has stayed with me over the years as I am increasingly aware that my own language has become a bit of an anachronism. When using a contemporary American colloquialism, I sometimes find myself putting it in air-quotes or prefacing it with an “as they say,” as if to distance myself from it. Language that I find appropriate to a situation, such as addressing a person whom I’ve never met before (okay, full disclosure: in an email) is considered pedantic and ridiculously formal. Idioms, figures of speech, literary references, and snatches of old songs that leap to my tongue only mystify and amuse if I give voice to them. And when I’m with South Asian or British friends of my own generation, it is delicious to use such words, phrases, and syntax without having to explain myself. As a teacher I have to do a lot of explaining; it’s a strain to have to keep doing so outside the classroom as well.
Just yesterday I ran into a Sri Lankan colleague in the hallway at work, and complimented her on her beautiful leather satchel. She thanked me, then remarked that only she and I would use, or even understand, that word. I replied, “but that’s what it is, isn’t it?” We both laughed with the pleasure of mutual recognition. Chatting with my Bangladeshi girlfriend on the phone one night about an infuriating encounter, I said that I had longed to give the person one tight slap. Not that I ever would have done so, but just uttering that phrase made me feel much better.
Over the past five years on Tell Me Another I have found myself increasingly using the language that comes naturally. Not only does it give me a sense of release to write in my own voice, but the teacher in me feels compelled to add a hyperlink to a definition or explanation in case the reader finds the expression foreign. If I am an anachronism with my 1960s English, at least in a small way I’m keeping my language alive, reaching out across cyberspace to others like me who might feel that thrill of recognition when they read it. Still, the greatest pleasure comes in face-to-face conversation, when old friends who understand each other savour their words as they roll off the tongue.
* From Why Can’t The English?, sung by the delightfully insufferable Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Of course, in language usage, what’s “proper” is entirely subjective.