I recently mentioned a conversation I had with one of my grandmas about why I have this blog. (If you missed it, you can check it out by clicking here.) In the same lunch conversation, she also got me questioning this – how are different cultural influences affecting my language? I really need to talk to my grandmas more! Aren’t they the best?
Anyways, it all started with my mom and I sharing a long-standing family joke with Grandma. You see, I’ve known my husband since just before our senior year of high school – almost ten years now! And like any good cliche, it was only after we got married that he started to realize some weird things about me. Like how I wouldn’t pick up a bar of soap if it fell in the sink while washing my hands. Or how I always bought wayyyy more vegetables than meat (crazy, right? haha). But the most deeply ingrained thing that has remained throughout our marriage, and I really can’t stop, is my apparently “make-believe” vocabulary.
And now that I’m writing about this, of course, my husband and I can’t think of any of the tons of words or phrases I’ve said that he’s made me stop to explain, except for the two that came up when I was talking to my grandma. Maybe that means he’s finally getting used to them?
So let me rewind a bit and just share the gist of the conversation for some context:
Me: Grandma, do you know what I mean when I say “kiki”? Is that something you say, or where did we get that word from?
*Mom laughs, knowing where this is going, which raised Grandma’s eyebrows.*
Grandma: Yeah, of course. *looks confused as to why I’d ask such a dumb question.”
Mom *jumping in to help explain*: Apparently a lot of the words we say aren’t normal words, and Tyler doesn’t understand them. We tell Tyler that we’re going to make him a Smith Dictionary.
*Grandma still seems skeptical that anyone would not know what “kiki” means, and repeats the word out loud to herself multiple times*
Grandma: Well, then, it must be a Native American word! Maybe Navajo or Hopi. You know Grandpa spoke so many different languages, I can’t keep track!
This was a better response than I could have ever imagined – “it must be a Native American word” – and I immediately knew that I was stealing that as my excuse for the rest of my life! Oh, sorry. That didn’t make sense? It must be one of my great-grandfather’s Navajo terms the family just uses now. Who could even call my bluff?! (Okay, yeah, a few of my friends might be reading this who actually could call my bluff, but still.)
For further context, “kiki” means (in my family) gross/dirty, as in, “Don’t touch that! It’s kiki!” And my great-grandfather was one of the very earliest traders to mingle and trade with many Native American tribes, like the Navajo and Hopi. So my grandma’s statement isn’t at all far fetched, and there really are quite a few things that have passed down through the family because of him. However, I haven’t been able to figure out if he is the actual source of why our family uses this word.
As my mom, grandma and I joked about what had just been said and tried to think of other examples of things we say that people outside our family don’t understand, my mom brought up that everyone looks at her funny when she offers to “tend [their] kids”. That made me look at her funny. Now I was the one confused as to why anyone would think that was a weird saying. I thought it was totally normal to say. So I came home and asked Tyler about it. Sure enough, he asked me, “Well, it depends. Are you a shepherd? You tend a flock, not a child.” And I guess a “kid” is technically a baby goat, so it does make sense that way, but that’s not how my mom has taught me to use the phrase.
Again, I learned who to blame for my messed up vocabulary – this time my Scottish granny, who came to America with her own basket full of fun phrases. My mom explained that she knew it was something Granny had always said, but that she’d just never realized until adulthood that it wasn’t a very American thing to say. And another generation later, here she has been leading me to believe it’s a normal thing to say too! One of these days maybe we’ll actually publish the “Smith Family Dictionary” and detail exactly where all of our seemingly out-of-place sayings come from.
So that was a really long story all to set the scene and let you know why I was even pondering such a question. But does my question – how do different cultural influences affect our language? – actually have an answer that I can just cut to already? Yes, it actually has quite a few. But first, I’d like to take one more detour and share my favorite resource as I was perusing the internet for ideas I may have missed in relation to answering this question, and hope that if you watch it, you’ll better appreciate what answer I offer next. TED talks. Yup, ted.com has a whole playlist on their website dedicated to speakers who have addressed the evolution of language. Check it out here:
Or just skip below to my very favorite one by the dictionary-maker, Erin McKean:
There are so many things that affect our language! What I have illustrated above in my story is what Erin describes as “robbing”. Technically, as she explains, people usually say that we “borrow” words from other languages, but it’s just thievery. My family has stolen many words from other languages simply because many members of my family have spoken different languages, or at least had a different dialect of English growing up. This is the case in many homes. As an English speaker, this is such a large part of our accepted language, that it hardly phases people usually.
Then there are words that are real words of your very own tongue and language, but we start to put them into the wrong form of speech to get our point across. My husband would say that the very most obscene word that my mother and I have created in this way is “smarticles”. We’ve taken the adjective – smart – and evolved it into personifying these tangible-like things from which my son’s intelligence spouts. It’s also a compound word (smart+particles), but that hadn’t been our intention. It just sounded right, ya know. It said what we needed it to say. And English allows us to do that! I mean, when you hear that – “smarticles” – don’t you just picture a ball pit of knowledge being picked apart by messy toddlers? If so, then we did our job well in creating that word, because that’s what we mean. My son’s head is just chock full of smarticles.
Our culture also affects our communication in much broader ways. In some cultures, small talk is uncomfortable and almost forbidden between strangers. In others places worldwide, there seems to be no limit to what a random passenger on the bus might ask you! I would say I live somewhere in the middle of these two worlds, where it’s okay to break the ice when you’re stuck near someone but you shouldn’t get too crazy with your topics and questions. So I was shocked this week to read a FaceBook post in a group of women from around the world highlighting a cultural perspective different from my own. She explained that she was looking for help in a work situation (the focus of this particular group) where a supervisor was continually asking her uncomfortable questions on business trips. My mind immediately filled in the blanks on what I assumed she meant, and I was going to just skip by, but then I saw in quotations one of the “inappropriate” questions constantly asked was simply, “What did you do last night?” Now, I suppose that depending on the way a person asked this, it might make me feel awkward, if they were really trying to imply that they wanted to hear something juicy. But this wasn’t the case. In fact, the woman clarified that she recognized the supervisor was just trying to make friendly small talk, but felt like that specific question among others was unprofessional and private. WOW! I would have never even considered this to be an off-limits topic. To me, that is such a normal question if I’m going to be traveling with someone on an overnight or weeklong trip! But her foreign and family culture had taught her to be much more private and respectful of acquaintances’ personal time. This is just one recent example of cultural etiquette in our communication.
You could extend this communication etiquette to also include body language and other factors. In America, we can generally be very loud, openly show a ton of expression, and be easily excited in public settings. This is a stereotype for many islander nations as well. It’s okay to see your friend and run up to them, or yell a greeting, and be rather boisterous about the thrilling coincidence of it all. Nobody will care too much. Buuuut go to Eastern Europe and everyone on the street will give you a sideways glance for acting this same way. You will definitely feel like you’ve disturbed the peace with your behavior. More than once while living in Russia I had people ask me before I even opened my mouth if I was American. I would laugh and ask them how they knew, and you know what I was told multiple times? It was something to the effect of, “You draw attention to yourself, laughing and talking down the street, saying ‘hi’ to everyone.” Now, verbally acknowledging everyone you pass is really weird here in Phoenix too, I’d say, but smiling and nodding their way isn’t. In Russia, it usually was.
I could continue, but I’ll wrap up here for now while you process, come up with your own answers to the question, and then we can talk about it more later. I’ll just share this last thing about social etiquette. In relationship to greeting everyone kindly, I was once encouraged to ask myself, “When we’re all in Heaven, do you think we’re going to walk around with our heads down, frowning and acting like passerby don’t exist?? No way! We’re going to be so excited to be where we are, surrounded by friends, family and other great people, and we’re going to want to look them all in the eye and share our joy!” Why wait til Heaven though, right? Be the start to a new, more joyful, inclusive and friendly culture now!
Now I’d love to hear your responses to the question. How have cultural influences around you affected your language? Have you ever said something perfectly normal to you that confused everyone else in the room? Have you ever moved to a new place and felt uncomfortable by the way other people talked differently? I’d love to hear about it!
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