The Identity Behind Speech
“What rice want?” He snapped at me.
“Pardon?” I asked.
“What rice you want?” He asked a little louder.
“Sticky.” I responded after a long pause.
Besides the obvious facts like that he had Chinese characteristics and worked at a chinese store, you could tell he was from China. The way he spoke brought that out. He wasn’t a typical Asian-American but born and raised in China. Probably came to America as a teenager. He couldn’t have been older then 20.
I got my food and left, pondering for a while. You could tell a lot by a persons speech. Walking home, I saw some guys standing at the corner. I don’t have a better way of describing them then ‘gangsters’. Oversized jeans closer to the ground then their bottom, boxers hanging out, nike high tops and dark hoodies.
“Damn, tha jawn bad.” One of them announced, eyeing a woman that was now crossing the street.
“Yo, she hot.” One of the guys agreed with him.
“She ‘ard.” The third smirked.
“You just salty cause you know you couldn’ land a chick like that.” The first guy teased.
They were obviously from Philadelphia. Born and raised in the general area. The little bits I heard of the conversation indicated a clear understanding of Philadelphian slang. Words such as ‘jawn’ and ‘salty’ aren’t used anywhere else. And their accent sounded it too. Probably from North or West Philly. Not really surprising since I was in West but it was still fascinating how much the way they spoke gave away. It also made me think of who they were trying to be. They wanted to sound tough and chill. Class didn’t matter but they still managed to get across that they owned the place; Just by the tone in their voice.
James Baldwin said that “A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.” He is stating that a language develops when it is needed, when people don’t have the ability to communicate with each other. This shows that with every language comes a history. A reason why it was created and a reflection of the people who speak it. An example would be ‘Black English’, which was pieced together by slaves who came to America from Africa and couldn’t speak to each other. Referring to this example, Baldwin also stated that “...And (he; African Americans) enters a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white.” It means that with the language that a person speaks comes not only with a history but an identity. Language reveals a person, but also creates them.
In the streets of London, England, the way one speaks gives away everything about them. The formality in their tone reflects their education which goes as far as signifying their wealth and the status of their family. Their accent shows the region they are from and their vocabulary gives of what they aspire to be or what they have become.
The way I speak just as much reveals who I am. I speak a clear, proper English without too much of a specific accent. This makes sense considering I learned to speak the language in pre-school when I was two. I was taught standard textbook English. If you listen to me talk long enough though, I sometimes let German slip, that’s because I was born in Austria and it was my first language. Even odder, I switch between accents and slang when I speak fast. Since I live in Philadelphia, I’ve picked up some Philly slang but I also use Australian words and phrases, having lived there for a fair amount of time. If you heard me for long enough, you could probably guess my life story.
Speech is a dead giveaway when it comes to a person. It reflects your history and your current status as well as your emotions. The way you project your voice signifies how you feel in a situation. Your vocabulary shows who you are as a person. Your accent reflects your history. Though just simple words coming from a mouth, language is an identity.