“Excuse me. Can you please show me where the gravy is?” I shuffle through the endless aisles, piled to the brim with food. We reach our destination as the worker peels away. I nod a silent thank you and look at the wall in front of me. Cans of gravy. Brown. Not the gravy I wanted. “This isn’t what I wanted,” I say aloud to myself. I draw the attention of other customers, but do my best to ignore their glares.
I leave the aisle at once, almost disgusted with the fact that I didn’t get the real gravy, the Italian gravy, that I was searching for. I wander around the grocery store looking for the sweet Italian perfection my father had instructed me to get. I finally find it, perched atop the highest shelf in aisle 9. I politely handed the cashier the can. She slid the barcode swiftly across the scanner, “Tomato Sauce- $3.99”.
“Dad, he gave me brown gravy. BROWN.”
“It’s Jersey bud, we aren’t on ninth street anymore. They don’t talk the way we do.”
“God, I hate these people.”
I never thought about it. They’re so close apart, separated by a small body of water, but
they do things so much differently. The way we drive, the way we cook, they way the houses look, but the way we talk especially. They say coffee, not “cawfee.” They say water, not “wooder.” I had to make that adjustment when I moved, but I did it subconsciously at first. I hadn’t even realized that I started pronouncing the “a” in water instead of the “o”. I wanted to be normal to them. I wanted to speak like them, I wanted to speak correctly to the new neighbors in their cookie-cutter house. I remember the first time I spoke to them, they knew instantly where I was from.
“How’d you know?” I would ask, confusedly.
“I mean, the way you ‘tawlk’ instead of talk. Everything has an ‘aw’ in it and everything sounds different from the way we say it here.”
That made me conscious of the way I spoke, the way I stood out from everyone else. I started making an effort to say things the “normal way.” I wanted to be like them, be someone that they wouldn’t make fun of or look at differently because of the way I spoke. I’d rather fit in with people there then feel inferior because I spoke, what I felt was, a complete different language from them. I wanted to fit in with the kids there not in the things I did but in the way I spoke.
I did keep, however, the words that people from New Jersey didn’t know, or words that we as Italians pronounce so differently that they couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about. Gravy for instance, the red stuff. I will always say that, no matter where I go. It's my heritage. It's who I am. It will always stay with me. But gravy is a real word, just a different meaning to people from South Philly. Other pronunciations are so different, they don’t resemble the original word at all. Italians say “rigut” instead of ricotta. We say galamad instead of calamari. Those are the things I would never change. The words I keep with me no matter how much it sets me apart from others.
A video we watched in class, Americana Tongues, demonstrates how language differs from region to region, and reinforces the idea that no matter how small the distance, the English language we speak is all different. The way one part of Boston speaks is different from the way another part of Boston speaks, same with New York. Their languages and dialect are entirely different and they're in the same city. An entire body of water separates Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, the languages are completely different. It makes me feel like an alien.
I’d like to say I recover my language when I come back to Philly, but I’d be lying. I feel like Jersey has changed me, stripped me of something that was a big part of my identity, the way I speak. The language made me feel closer to my family. It made me feel at home. Now I can’t “tawlk” like that no matter how hard I try. Most people would say, “It’s your language. It’s like riding a bike. You never forget.” They’d be right. I didn’t forget. I subconsciously choose not to speak like that. It’s like my brain knows it isn’t the “correct” way to speak, so it refuses to let my mouth and tongue move in such a fashion to pronounce those words in that manner.
It would be easy to blame Jersey for taking away my language, for taking away who I am, but that isn’t the truth. I blame myself. I let this happen. I became conscious of what other people thought of me, something that I told myself I’d never do. I changed for the sake of other people’s acceptance, even though, at first, I thought I was changing for myself. I thought it was what I wanted.
“Dad, do you like it here?”
“It has its ups and downs. They can’t drive and their cheesesteaks aren’t as good. We can’t walk anywhere. But on the other hand, we have a pool because we have a backyard and its safe here. The ‘wooder’ is better too.”
“Dad, how’d you do that?”
“You said ‘wooder’. That’s not how people say it here.”
From that moment on, I never heard my dad say “wooder” again. He never said “haungry”, there wasn’t an “aw” in everything he said anymore. I realized it wasn’t just me. It was human nature. When the way you do something is deemed different from the norm, you want to change yourself to fit in, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. As people, we don’t like feeling inferior because we’re different.
Still, even after realizing that, I can’t speak my native tongue. The sharp South Philly accent has left me, never to come back again. I force myself to speak that way sometimes, but it just comes out wrong. It feels forced, because it is. It comes out right, but all wrong. My mouth and tongue may never move the same way again, and produce the same noises that I once called my language.
American Tongues. Film. 4 Nov 2013.