I Know Big Words, I Swear

I’d like to thank the British for my vocabulary. Not in the traditional sense, either. I don’t watch any British TV shows regularly, or much television at all, really. I knew words like “lithe” and “raucous” before I knew my times tables, thanks to British car magazines. I liked cars, and I wanted to read reviews of new cars, but I didn’t plan on learning anything I could use in school or to impress the types of people who are impressed by kids with big vocabularies. Essentially, I tricked myself into learning. That probably says something about me.

Language-wise, I suppose I’m pretty interesting. I was born in Concord, New Hampshire, and lived there until I was about 8. After that, I moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You may notice that people from both of these places typically have thick accents, but I do not. Nobody in my family has a strong New England accent either. Why is that? I don’t know. One theory is that accents are generally associated with the lower class, who have less money to travel and pollute their regional accent with the sounds of other places. My family isn’t particularly wealthy, but we have enough means to travel on occasion. This could be a factor, but I don’t think it’s frequent enough to have a distinct influence.

I found a test on the New York Times’ website that determined where your vocabulary comes from, and it said that I had a vocabulary and accent typical of Southern New Hampshire, which makes sense. This test is very well done because not only does it incorporate the words you use, it also includes questions about the pronunciation of words like “been” and “aunt”. An example of where my New Hampshire accent shows through, is in the pronunciation of the word “been”. I say it like the name “Ben”, but farther south it is pronounced like “bin” or “bean”. Some research I did shows that the accents of different regions of the United States come from the accents of the immigrants who settled there. For example, accents in New England are influenced by the English accent of the period, because most of the settlers to New England were English.

Which returns us to the British. For reasons I cannot explain, the British nearly have a monopoly on automotive journalism. The British are also known for their eloquence and passion for the written word. When I was little, I wanted to read about cars as much as possible. As an aside, cars are still my hobby, there’s just a lot more doing and planning than reading for me now. At the time, the best way to get information about cars was to read magazines, which led me to publications like Top Gear (like the show), Evo, and the creatively named Car Magazine. Each magazine had its own unique character, and I simply couldn’t stop reading each and every magazine I stumbled upon, whether it was an inherited issue from 3 years ago from one of my dad’s work friends or a new copy found in the imported section of our local Borders. Getting a brand new magazine was a relatively special occasion, thanks to the relatively high cost of the imported magazines, especially in comparison to their sparse content appropriate for their price back in the old country. The additional insight and beautiful photography was worth it, at least for me. I didn’t realize I had learned so much from these magazines until about 7th or 8th grade, when we began studying SAT words. I knew about 70% of the words, and I didn’t know why. I was reading Car Magazine’s 30th anniversary issue when it clicked for me.

As proud as I am to be different and from another place, I still can’t help that my accent is relatively subtle. I would love to write a wonderful reflection paragraph detailing the oppression I face daily due to my unusual dialect, but nobody seems to notice I have an accent at all. For the most part, people are surprised when I tell them I’m not from Philadelphia. The most obvious way to tell that I’m from somewhere different becomes revealed only in winter.
“Aren’t you cold?” they say, less frequently than the rest of this essay would have you believe. I’m not cold. I’m from a place where we have real life actual winter, and if you’re interested I can tell you a story about when I carved an igloo in the large snowbank next to my old house that was so big I could sleep in it. For the record, I did not sleep in the igloo. That would have been dangerous.

A while ago in English class, we read an essay by James Baldwin called “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” Among other things that are less relevant to this essay, Baldwin mentions how people from different places and different cultural backgrounds can sound completely different. He also states that black English has so much slang that it is almost unintelligible to the untrained ear. At one time, being from a highly monocultural place, I was that untrained ear. I remember at recess being confused at the strange sentences that were flying around, swirling in the air and trapping me. It was only about 350 miles away, but it felt like another continent.

The hardest part about slang is that nobody teaches it. You can learn it, but by the time you have it figured out, you are months or even years behind, and your new knowledge is no longer relevant. This used to be a problem for me, but now I have it figured out, for the most part. Slang isn’t made to be hard to understand. I made myself sound like this massively uncomfortable white guy who is constantly out of the loop, but I was really only like that for a year or two, while I was adjusting to living in a city. I had more important things to worry about than language.

Comments (5)

Imani Weeks (Student 2017)
Imani Weeks

What grabbed me is the fact that you said magazines influenced your vocabulary. I didn't know before that you were interested in cars and like to read car magazines. I thing I might add is maybe talking about what people said to you about your vocabulary when you were younger.

Toby Mast (Student 2017)
Toby Mast

The oddities in this essay really caught my attention. Such as how reading car magazines increased your vocabulary or how you checked where your vocabalaty cam from in the New York times program.

Ella Donesky (Student 2017)
Ella Donesky

I didn't know you were a car person, either. And I wouldn't have thought to consider books or magazines as a source of influence, so it really stood out to me when you talked about that aspect of your language. Very unique anecdotes.

Michaela Peterson (Student 2017)
Michaela Peterson

This was an incredibly well written piece. The part that grabbed my attention was when you talked about learning your vocabulary from British car magazines. I learned a lot of my vocabulary a similar way, by listening to audio-books in the car with my parents. I never realized that you were a car person, and they way you talked about the various magazines was really interesting. I would have added a direct quote from the James Baldwin piece, but other than that, this was a very interesting, and funny, essay.

Pedro Castillo (Student 2017)
Pedro Castillo

I really liked this piece and what grabbed my attention was "British car magazines". I did not know that you were a car person, I'm a big car person myself. But overall good piece, you added backstories and you reflected on everything. Nice job.