Neutral Words

Language Autobiography - Gold stream

Isabella Tognini 

Final Draft – 1/14/11


Neutral Words


            “Abowt two years aygo, Ah had a business meetin’ with Pat Gilick and Dave Montgomery. In that meetin’ Dave Montgomery he told me, “Charlie, you gotta lot uh seconds.” I don’t have no damn seconds no mo.”

 I really cannot understand what he is saying. It would be nice if he talked a lot clearer, he sounds like a West Virginia hick.  I had to listen to Charlie Manuel five times before I understood exactly what he was saying.  That man with that country accent was the manager of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies two years ago.  He may sound like a country bumpkin to our Philadelphia ears but that does not mean he is not smart. His players love him and respect him and so do all of us. People from West Virginia probably think we speak funny.  I used Charlie Manuel as an example of language because we all know him and can remember when he first came here and people thought that maybe he wasn’t such a great manager in part because of the way he sounded, which to bluntly put it, and to our northern ears sounds dumb.

“You’re not from here, are you?” Said the waiter when I asked for a glass of water.

“No, I am. I’m from Philly.”

“Oh, you don’t have an accent. Where are you from?”

My answers were always the same, “I’ve always lived in Philadelphia.”

My history has produced a pretty neutral accent, though sometimes I find myself falling into an accent, especially with my friends, if I spend long amounts of time with them, I can hear myself pronouncing words a bit different then usual.  A couple years ago I went to a camp in Ireland and after just a few days I found myself adopting an Irish brogue.

Both of my grandmothers are still alive.  My mother’s mother is from Greece, while my father’s mother is from England.  They have both been here for more than 50 years, but they still have accents from their home countries.  I’ve seen my Greek grandmother struggle in a store to make herself understood, and the clerk working in the store soon loses patience.  On the other hand my English grandmother has no language barrier and people seem charmed by the accent. 

In the story How to Tame a Wild Tongue by Gloria Anzaldúa she said, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language,” which refers to her belief that language defines your culture and identity.  She did not want to reject her Mexican culture in order to be part of ours.  She is hurt by the way she is treated here because of the way she speaks.  My European grandmothers did not leave their cultures behind, even after all these years, though they love our country, with all of its diverse people.  After all wasn’t this country built on immigration?  I don’t understand all the anti-immigration talk these days.  My mother was born and raised in Philadelphia, and my father grew up in Canada and later outside Cleveland, Ohio.  Neither seem to have any accent at all.  Maybe that’s why I don’t really feel like I have an accent, and have been lucky to blend in with language and culture and have not had a problem with it.

Language is directly related to power.  Even if you were raised in a penthouse on Rittenhouse Square, you may not get ahead in relationships with others if you cannot speak well and convincingly.  If you speak well and with confidence it can help you negotiate with people and helps you express your ideas.  Language, or good use of it can help in an interview for a college or a job.  My grandmother came to this country as an adult, and had difficulty learning the language.  It is hard for a person to get ahead in America if they cannot speak “good English,” even if they had a good job in their country of origin.  How can they teach or be a doctor if no one understands them?  There is a small Albanian population in my neighborhood and I see the men walking together and smoking cigarettes, but they only seem to say hello in English.  They sit together everyday at the Dunkin Donuts.  They have each other.  I guess the next generation will have English as a first language and have an easier time blending in.  I guess what anyone wants from their language is to be accepted.