Losing our culture by losing our dialects

In a recent post, I talked about becoming fluent in another language. My father-in-law made a comment about it on Facebook observing that the presence of so many dialects made learning or at least understanding German difficult for him1. This triggered some thoughts that at first I thought would be a followup note, but I think there’s enough floating around in my head about it to justify a separate post.

Dialects and accents. Most seem to hate them. I love em. Many see them as a sign of ignorance but I view it as richness of life. Since most of my friends are English speaking, I’ll start with my love of English variations.

German has dialects that native German speakers can’t understand. In English, it’s a bit simpler. It’s mostly accents. I love accents.

English accents and dialects

I love the way Marissa Tomei talks in My Cousin Vinny. Watching this scene makes me swoon.

More subtle is Frances McDormand’s performance in the movie Fargo. I loved her character.

Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing (not safe for work)

It’s not just women. For example Bob and Dough McKenzie

Of course, Eddie Murphy was great at making light of accents and vernacular

I could go on. I love it.

A Cultural Digression

Speaking of Ebonics, I have a story of my own. Many of my friends would agree that I’m the whitest black guy they know. 2 If nothing else, I “talk like a white guy”. Mostly, I just try to be myself, and I guess this is part of the reason that I don’t talk like the blacks on TV.

Alright, I’m gonna digress into a side trail that isn’t really related to linguistics. Hopefully, I can tie it back into the topic. Beware that I’ll be generalizing heavily. Stereotypes exist for a reason but never forget that people are individual. My comments are based on the experiences of just one person, my own.

Blacks, and black men in particular, have a well known stereotypical personality. The black community, like all communities, expects a fair amount of conformation. Below are some ways I relate to some of the common perceptions and expectations.

  • Into sports and basketball in particular. I don’t watch sports of any kind except the Olympics then they come around 3. I’ve never enjoyed playing 4 I’ve spent a lifetime of people taking one look at me any assuming I play. Ask me to play ice hockey and I’ll consider it though. List of blacks in the NHL
  • Lovers. I was very shy with girls as a teenager.  Later on, I found that Caucasian women, which I’ve generally preferred, perhaps because of my early years in Germany, either preferred white guys or preferred the more stereotypical black men. A girlfriend once related a comment made by one of her friends, “WHAT!? You’ve been dating a black guy all this time and didn’t tell me!?”. My personality doesn’t match the stereotype. Women seeking such a man should look elsewhere.
  • Church. The stereotypes you’ve seen about black churches ALL match the image or aspire to. The jokes comedians like Arsenio Hall make about black pastors are based on universal truth. I have never been to a black church that didn’t looking like something on TV.
    Although my dad and I didn’t attend church, the rest of my family is fairly religious. Sunday activities went from 8:30 to 2:30. Although I did attend church regularly for 8 months while living in Israel, I’ve always resisted organized religion. Church could and should be so strengthening, but most of the time, I’ve just seen it be oppressive, un-supportive, and hypocritical. So the culture of religion is something I’ve resisted.
  • The black church has its cultural influences. Folks go to church dressed to the nines. To take it further, if you don’t dress nice, that’s taken as an indicator that you’re not successful. I’ve always felt more comfortable in shorts and a tshirt.
  • Success as an image thing. I once went to visit a friend shortly after graduating college and starting at Intel. I flew down to LA and rented a car. Her mom said something to the effect of, “look at you, rentin cars and shit…” 5 I was a bit surprised by this comment. Just because you go into debt buying cars you can’t afford or do something as simple as renting a car does not success make.
  • “Acting white” was mocked though I usually took it as being teased for being smart and enjoying school. 6

While at Intel, for several years, I attended a leadership conference that Intel hosted to help improve representation within the company’s higher ranks. African American men and women from across the company traveled to Santa Clara for 3 or 4 days of workshops and networking. All of Intel’s grade 8+ were invited. Approximately 120 people. 7.

The first two or three of those conferences left me energized but left out. I continually felt left out for not being black enough. That changed in the final two years when, finally, there was a critical mass of attendees that were at least as white acting as me. I finally felt like I fitted in.

Language as a source of comfort

Coming back to dialects. While I’ve never spoken black, it’s always been something that’s comforting to hear, especially now that I’m not in it. When I went to the conferences, as left out as I felt, it still felt like I was among my people. When I go to church, even though there’s so much I find distasteful, it’s familiar/soothing. 8.

I love the variety of ways in which people express themselves. America still needs to make some progress when it comes to race/ethnicity/nationality. The recent election is a good demonstration of that. American and the world in general are still a bit oppressive of smaller groups. Communities should be coming together to support its members but too often they add to the oppression.

German Dialects

So, German dialects… American’s don’t know what a dialect is. Just accents really. Even this example of Brad Pitt is still mostly accent:

In Germany, a lot of the vocabulary can be different. People that grew up 100 miles apart can speak variations of German that are unintelligible to each other.

The local Frankfurt form of speak is called Hessisch.9 Here is a random clip that you probably won’t understand. In it, a woman is tested by here mother on her ability to understand Hessische phrases. She was probably about 50/50

If you understand a little bit of German, perhaps, perhaps you might be able to follow this next one. It’s of two comedians who made their name first by being really funny, but second, it’s mostly using the local dialect/accent. In it a lady 10 goes into a music store to buy a drum machine to accompany her husband’s accordion playing. The thing she buys cost 850 Deutsch Marks or about $400. She’s finally convinced to buy when they find the beat for Lambada.

Here’s another one that English speakers may appreciate

Dying Language

Speech like this is dying in Germany. Parents make an effort to speak only Hoch Deutsch with their kids. I asked my friend’s mom about this and doesn’t she think Germany is losing something. Here’s how she described it (paraphrasing from memory and translated):

In the early years of school, teachers ask students to write using their normal voice. It’s only later that they are taught grammar and standard German. In those early years, kids that speak dialect at home are at a disadvantage and some critical decisions are made in those times. Kids who are not yet able to speak standard German are labelled by their teachers as not suitable for Gymnasium11

Think of it like this. A smart kid grows up in “da hood”, where everyone speaks the local accent/dialect. That kid then is bussed to a school in a different neighborhood. To one of the “good” schools. He or she are accepted so the school can talk about diversity but many of the teachers then discourage them by assuming they’re stupid.

What would this post be without yet another youtube clip:

I went on to ask her what happens from here. Although I hear lots of locals speaking Hessisch, it’s only older folks; people in my parents’ generation. What happens when that generation passes?

Then Hessisch goes away

That makes me really sad.

I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed writing it.

 

Follow up

Here’s a piece of follow up on this very post. At Intel, many of my coworkers were Indian. Anyone who has met even one Indian knows that they have a distinctive accent.

For a long time, I thought of their accent in the same way I thought of German accents speaking English. Folks who have learned English but just aren’t able to say the sounds.

Well, in the case of Indians, this is incorrect thinking. People in Britain sound different when speaking English but few would say they are speaking incorrectly12. That’s just the local accent. Similarly, Indians in the US are speaking correct English. There are over a billion Indians who speak with an Indian accent and in India, it’s correct English. We don’t expect Brits to change their speech when they travel to the US, do we?

Speaking of Brits, I love Lily Allen’s voice. In this song pay close attention to the lyrics. 13


  1. After his time in the Navy, he ended up in Germany working for the Dept. of Defense

  2. even if I’m the only black guy they know. This is something that often surprises me. How is it possible that so many people know no black people?

  3. mostly because there’s such a variety that we don’t normally have

  4. a notable exception is D league, the lowest league, intramural sports in college. That was really fun

  5. I’ll note that this woman was very intelligent. One of my regrets in life is that I didn’t take the time to travel to LA for her funeral.

  6. to be fair, all cultures (except maybe Asian and Jewish ones) don’t encourage intelligence. Asian and Jewish cultures are oppressive in their own ways. What a wonderful world we live in. 😉

  7. that’s a small number given that Intel employed probably 50k people in the US. I once sat next to a higher manager in my dept on the Intel shuttle. He was trying to get a raise for everyone via a “market adjustment” and was working on a presentation for that. One of the foils I saw indicated that about a third of the dept were 8+ at the time. I spent about half of my career as a 9. I could tell that some of the managers around me didn’t think I deserved that. Conversely, I want to believe that many/most of my peers thought I did and perhaps should have been a 10/PE. Personally, I believe that I was worth every penny Intel paid me. It may not have been true in one or two of those years, but in those cases, my main deficiency was that I should have transferred somewhere else with less dysfunctional leadership.

  8. My church time in Israel was at a church that, while not black, could be described as charismatic. It’s the kind with lively, non-organ, music. Hallelujahs, many hands in the air… The stuff I grew up with. I tried the other Christian church in Haifa with my friend Teresa once and we both noted that it felt dead.

  9. We are in the state of Hessen. USA has CA, OR, WA, NY… Germany has Hessen, Bayern (Bavaria) and others.

  10. actually a guy

  11. basically college prep

  12. pompous, perhaps

  13. I’m liking that outfit.

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