My Linguistic Identities

Often times, people will say, “you say ‘to-may-to’, I say ‘to-mah-to’!” but you could argue something similar about the way different groups of people use phrases and words to mean different things.  When I think of language, and linking it to the question of an individual’s role in society, I am most interested in looking at identity along with it.  In my daily life, I see how my own identities are expressed through my language.

When I’m with my friends at School of Rock, I use an extra set of vocabulary to talk with them about music.  While we all are totally comfortable with casually using the words “key”, “chord progression”, “pinch harmonics”, and “bars” when discussing the songs we’re on, or the songs we are helping each other learn, our musical language may be incomprehensible to people who do not play music.  A few months ago, I was sitting at the dinner table with my parents, and somehow my dad (also a musician) and I started talking about harmonics, and their placement on the neck of the guitar/bass.  Although to us we seemed to be having a common conversation, at one point we turned to my mom, and her only words were, “What in the world are you talking about?”  I think experiences like this have helped me realize how many different “linguistic identities” I have, all based on my environment and who I am with.  If I had been having that same conversation with someone at School of Rock, nobody would have thought twice about it, much less paid any attention to it.  However, as soon as I was removed from the environment of School of Rock and being with my friends there, the nature of the conversation in relation to my surroundings was completely changed.  I have my own identity that goes with my friends at School of Rock, but also connects me with other musicians in general through the language I have the knowledge to use.    

Another “linguistic identity” of mine comes out when I am with my friends in and from school.  While some of our casual vocabulary would be easily understandable by most kids our age, it still would be cryptic to many adults.  I had never even thought of the language I used with my friends as being different from what I used in the rest of my daily life, until I started writing this piece.  This kind of late realization shows how different someone can seem to people in a larger community, when in a small community they are seen as normal, and see themselves as normal.  Two good examples of the kinds of phrases that are used frequently by high school students that may seem to make no sense to adults are “on point” (means something is good) and “out of pocket” (means something/someone is behaving too crazily, and should stop).  When I asked my mom what she thought “on point” and “out of pocket” meant, her responses were, “hit the nail on the head,” and “out of money.”  Although both phrases do mean something to adults like my mom, both mean completely different things to my peers and I.  The identity I use with my peers versus my superiors might be undetectable, if it weren’t for the linguistic differences between the two identities.  

My third “linguistic identity” is a good demonstration of a mixture between one I use with peers and one I use with adults––the one I use with my parents.  Parents, if you think about it, hold a very unique place in most teenagers’ lives.  Of course, they are my elders, and they have authority over me.  But I have also lived with them for 15 years, and therefore am more comfortable speaking casually around them than any other authority figure in my life.  Being this comfortable would usually mean using all of the same jargon I use with my peers, but there is also the age gap, bringing with it a vast cultural difference.  While I feel just as comfortable cursing around them as I do around my peers, I wouldn’t use the phrase “out of pocket” in a conversation with my parents, because–as is shown above–it wouldn’t make any sense to them in the context I would use it in.  I think this identity is very important to me, because it has drastically evolved and changed throughout my life along with the level of the language I use, even though I’ve been living with my parents the whole time.  

The last main “linguistic identity” in my life is the one I use when I’m speaking to adults that I’m less comfortable with–teachers, family friends, and people I’ve just recently met.  With them, I never use any of the jargon I do with my friends, and I certainly wouldn’t even consider cursing around them.  Around these adults, I am almost a completely different person, unfortunately one with less character.  Within my friend group, my schtick is being jokingly irritable, which is often really fun.  However, around adults I have just met I will usually have a big smile on my face, and try to politely agree with most of what they say.  When I text my friends, it’s often very informally structured, and most of the time I’m talking about something funny.  However, when I email one of my teachers it is often about something somewhat serious, and I can make myself sound like a graduate student emailing her professor about something.  I always use a more sophisticated vocabulary when communicating with my teachers through emails, though I use a pretty average vocabulary in person.

Thinking about one’s separate “linguistic identities” can really help you realize how well humans are at adapting to different types of situations.  Usually when people think about our abilities to adapt they think of physical evolution and survival instincts, but there is a much faster and everyday type of human adaptation, which you can see through paying attention to those different identities.  Language and identity is an extremely interesting issue, and one that authors and people in general have struggled with for a long time.  Thinking about language as something that directly connects to identity really helped me see another side of the life I live every day.