Idiolect: Not Just for Idiots

another way to say personal linguistic quirks

Idiolect?  I honestly did not know that I had one.  It never even occurred to me that I might.   I mean, I have been to other countries, and I always enjoy people who speak differently from me, but I have been idiocentric about my speech. I assumed that only American populations on the fringes of the main population had a dialect of Standard American English that was different from my own; most specifically Southerners and New Englanders.  And yes, there are other variations , such as African-American Vernacular, but I always thought of African-American Vernacular as its own language—not so much a dialect.  I guess you could say that I have somehow managed to convince myself that I am the perfect example of Standard American English, and that every other dialect is a variance of my own.

But then I got to thinking about it. First of all, where, oh where, did I get the idea that Standard American English is the international ideal that all other language groups aspire to?  Is it because English is the international business language? If so, who is to say that Standard American English is the internationally accepted business English dialect? (Some say it’s Oxford—oh say it’s not true!)  And even then, business English is only universal to international businesses, so what makes it right in Chicago neighborhoods, greater Illinois, or anywhere else in the United States?

So now that I have finally convinced myself that my idiolect is not necessarily the world standard, I am working to understand that my idiolect might not even be the American standard, or even the local standard. But my idiolect is standard to me, a woman who grew up in a middle-class white family in the heart of America’s “Wild West.” I lived in a highly conservative neighborhood, and interacted daily with rodeo-loving rednecks. Many of my friends had farmer’s tans.

At home I was the daughter of first-generation Americans: two people who had learned American English in a second language setting; both of whom insisted on grammatical politeness and correctness in all situations. As I grew up, I grew to love reading and writing, and sought to imitate what I was told was the best. In my music classes, I was not only taught music theory, but how to manipulate the English language for the most appropriate diction—always pure vowel sounds, never diphthongs. I should have known better though, because my friends who supported me in vocal competitions always told me that I could not get my pure vowel sounds right.  They swore that I sang “todee” rather than “today,” and no matter how I tried, I could not seem to get it right. I couldn’t hear it, but they did.

I guess I can’t fight my conservative upbringing no matter how liberal I claim to be.  Or perhaps it is my liberal bent that has allowed me to accept less than “perfect” English, and embrace my redneck side. I have come to learn that my spoken vowels are not even close to as pure as the Latin purity that once aspired to. My friends tell me that there is a definite twang to my vowels, making that annoying diphthong more apparent than ever.  They tell me that I have a drawl, too.  Yes, I guess I do. I know that I am conscious of speaking slower and drawing out my words in an attempt to be more clear, but  then even when I don’t care about clarity I still seem to draw out my words.

Drawing out my words does not necessarily improve my clarity either, because I am very aware that I often skip parts of sentences, leaving out the middle and expecting my friends to piece together my meaning from the beginning and the end.  And just as often, I will make a statement, then qualify it with a “but,” leaving my listeners to  . . . (complete my ending for me).  And correctness? As I get older I don’t care if it is not considered “polite.” I am saying it the way I mean it, and not the way anyone else thinks that it should be said.  If I don’t like your car, I’m much more likely to say it sucks than to say I don’t like it.  But if I do like it I won’t tell you that it is cool, because that’s not cool, but I might just say Damn!

I still believe that I fit pretty squarely into the Standard American Dialect and I am still trying hard not to be idiocentric about it.  Yes, I do have a bit of a drawl, and I am trying to come to terms with that persistent twang, but I don’t end my sentences with the random “yeah” like my Chicago raised husband does, I don’t add an R to the word “wash” (You mean some people warsh their cars?), I don’t add an S to anyway, and I don’t call my friends y’all (not very often, anyway).  I am not  pompous in my grammar either.  I mean, I have come to terms  with the fact that my personal standard can never be the world standard, so I have gotten off of my grammatical high-horse and worked to understand that there is a difference between correctness and accuracy—I say things the way that I say them, because that is part of my uniqueness.


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