Trying To Sound Smart

Sit up straight. Stay focused. This is important. Remember to pronounce water like “wah-er” instead of “wooder”. Remind yourself to put emphasis on the letter ‘s’ in the word ‘ask’ so you won’t sound like you are saying ‘ax’.

“May I assssk a question about relating themes in different religions?”

“Would you like some wah-ter?”

I feel like in order to impress a certain group of people, or in order to ‘sound smart’, you have to pronounce words in a “correct” way. Meaning, loose any trace of an accent you have and get rid of that hometown dialect; it won’t be helpful when you’re trying to impress people of importance.

“Mah, could I get a glass of wooder?”

“Did you see that jawn yesterday?”

“Do you know where the manguera is?”

Be relaxed. Don’t care about the words that fall out of your mouth; don’t pay any mind to the way you pronounce them either. You are with the people you know and spend most of your time with. They don’t care about your Philly-bound slang, or your disheveled ‘Spanglish’, they do the same that you do. I feel a bit more at at ease when I am around the people who grew up with the same dialect as I did. It is comforting to know that you don’t have to impress someone when they do not care about the way you are speaking. Needless to say, I still feel like there are times where I should speak “proper” even though I am in a more “judge free setting”.

Stay focused on the way you pronounce words - wait no, they don’t care - then again you care. Now I am confused. Though I use my Philly dialect when I am in a more comfortable zone, I still feel like I have to speak “proper” English.  If I end up speaking that way, then I feel like I am being judged.

“Why do you speak like that?”

“Speak like what?”

“Using big words and stuff, why are you trying to show off?”

“I’m not, I just like big words, and I like saying them the right way.”

“So are you saying that you say stuff better than me?”

“No… Not at all.”

Being said, that conversation with my friend ended badly; but after that I noticed a trend. The more big words I used and the more I enunciated, the more I was getting judged. They would say that I am ‘uppity’ or that I am trying to be better than the rest of them. But in reality, I am not. I surround myself with books, dictionaries, and other places of where bigger vocabulary roams, and I indulge myself in them. I just love vocabulary, yet people don’t seem to understand how much I enjoy it.

“You’re just trying to sound smart.”

That phrase haunts me. My relatives have told me that, my friends have told me that, and people I don’t even know have told me that. I am not attempting to “sound smart” at every chance I get. It does get offensive sometimes as well. I feel as if I have to restrain myself when I am supposed to be comfortable. It is like I have to be locked in some sort of cage to restrain or censor myself from sounding ‘smart’ just to avoid conflict. But by doing so, I no longer feel as if I am accepting myself. The way I speak and the language and dialect I use reflects on me. Using slang and big words are apart of my everyday life, but when I have to hold myself back, then I no longer feel true to myself.

Thinking about this reminds me of the 8th grade. I, along with 8 other students got put into an advanced English class. Instead of reading books and doing tests about them, we read Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and Edgar Allan Poe and ripped their texts to streads (meaning we learned their vocab and tried to decipher the meanings behind their writings). Our English class loved learning new words that were supposed to be beyond our grade level. But when we got back to our normal class, there would be a separation between the Advanced English students and the standard English class. They would always say “they’re showing off” and “they think they’re smarter than the rest of us”. We never felt like we were smarter nor did we think ourselves higher than the rest of the students; we just felt lucky that we got the opportunity to be in Advanced English since there were limited spots.

“...Language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity” - James Baldwin. I now realize that the vocabulary that I possess is seen as power, that the more vocab I know, the more control I will have in certain situations; but personally I doubt that to be true. There are plenty of people in this world who do not have an extensive vocabulary, and have more power than I possibly ever will. I also realized how language and dialect separates and brings together certain groups. Like in the 8th grade, language separated my class in two. Or how with some of my friends who speak a bit of Spanish like I do, feel separated from the rest of our friends when we end up saying a few words in Spanish. But it brings us together when we all know the same language and dialect, i.e people from Philadelphia have words that only we know of.

I also realized how language and dialect is a key component to my identity. It partially shows where I come from and mostly shows who I am. But when I feel separated from people due to the language I use, I end up silent. Instead of being heard and being judged, I sit with my mouth shut and listen to those around me. It feels uncomfortable to stay silent or to censor myself, but I find it better than hearing the question “Why are you trying to sound smart?”

Comments (1)

DuBois Stewart (Student 2017)
DuBois Stewart

The whole story really grabbed me. You took a unique approach to the project by reversing the roles. Instead of being afraid of sounding "street" you were afraid of sounding "too smart". I learned that you know lots of big words and you're afraid to use them, which I think is sad, but not in a bad way. If I were to add anything to this essay it would be a stronger, more resolute ending. Rather than ending with the conflict, you could end with a resolution not to limit your language for others, or something like that.