Monday, September 1, 2008

My idiolect

By Luis K. Feliz

When I stepped on someone’s sneakers, I said, “My bad” (sorry). When someone was overreacting to something insignificant, I said, “Why are you tripping.” That was during adolescence because since then my idiolect has evolved tremendously.

As an immigrant to the United States, when I first settled in New York, I lived in a diverse working-class community. As a result, I mimicked the speech patterns of my neighbors and acquaintances. By the age of eleven, I had a “whole slew of” colloquialism to mark my successful "acculturation." In the microcosm of my community, the emulative process for success was not defined by vying for eloquence but rather by vying for how ungrammatical and non-standard your speech could be. You were in the “know” when you knew the metonymies for the police and other outsiders that threaten the sovereignty of the sub-state. It was a whole different world, with its own lexicon and its own traditions and secrecy.

When I progressed in the educational system and entered high school, I entered a new world. I attended an integrated school, so I had classmates that spoke a “funny” and “alien” language. I felt embarrassed to talk lest I would expose my ignorance and be the laughingstock of the class. During this time, I communed with kids that shared the same idiolect. I found comfort in the sense of camaraderie that pervaded our conversations. I remember some of my friends saying things such as “I don’t need to talk white to be somebody… I am not going to be a sellout.” I felt like it was “us” against “them.”

Then during my junior year, I met a soft-spoken English teacher, Mr. Singh. With his black horn-rimmed glasses and an eccentric personality, he seemed different—intellectual. When he spoke with his English accent about Orwell, I just gawked in awe. His lips oozed with poetry and transported me to a different world. Under his tutelage, I read the Romantic poets. I listened intently to him recite lines from Percy Bysshe Shelly's "Ode to the West Wind" and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." He provoked my intellectual curiosity and appreciation for language. He helped me see the colors of life through language. To understand how my idiolect has evolved, it is important to mention his influence on me.

Enchanted by language, I read avidly and expanded on my vocabulary. For example, I love verbs. Six of my favorite verbs are: plunge, undercut, pierce, disabuse, coerce, and hunker down. I love verbs because they enliven prose. Without verbs, sentences lose their urgency. However, I rarely use these verbs in my speech. Instead, I reserve them for writing. In writing, I feel that anything is possible, whereas speech is more constraining. For instance, in writing, I can surmount the obstacles of conversation such as overt self-consciousness about my word choices or what register to use to convey my ideas to a particular group. When I speak, I worry about coming across as a know-it-all or worst –an elitist. Therefore, I come to writing unencumbered with whether to adopt an overt prestige* or a covert prestige register.* Through my writing I can experience complete freedom.

But it also depends on the type of writing. I love writing personal, descriptive, and narrative essays because you have freedom to exercise your creativity, while some research papers read like abstruse verbiage for an audience deprived of the kernel of life-- fun. Furthermore, I don’t know anyone that enjoys reading deeply theoretical and abstract essays, including scholars. Recently, I tried reading Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida-- both very smart men who have interesting things to say. But I had to put their books down. I couldn’t do it. Nevertheless, academia's lure arises less from obtuseness and obscurity than from clarity and conviction.
Another factor of my idiolect is public speaking. Although I feel confident about speaking in public in a classroom setting, I am too self-conscious about my heavy Spanish accent in other situations. As a result, I get nervous when I have to speak to someone that I think highly of. For example, when I speak to a professor I admire, I fumble thinking about how to articulate my thoughts. “Should I not use the word schadenfreude because I might sound pretentious? Should I use chagrined instead of embarrassed?” I have these conversations with myself quite often, which prevent me from conveying my thoughts clearly. In addition, I think about the phonology, “Am I pronouncing this word correctly,” I say to myself. It is difficult for me to pronounce the “th” sound in lethal, death, Earth and Meredith. Meredith, for example, I pronounced like “Marydeaf.” Thus, my intonation is in a fast diminuendo tone when I know that I can’t pronounce a certain word well.

In closing, my idiolect is marked by sharp differences in speech and writing. I tried to make my writing rich by incorporating idioms, ricochet words, and yiddishisms. Take for example the ricochet words willy-nilly, razzle-dazzle and my favorite itty-bitty, they sound pleasing and playful to the ear, and that is why I am fond of using them. Yiddishims, on the other hand, are cacophonous. When you pronounce shtick, it seems you are whispering a dirty word or coughing up phlegm. I love yiddishims because of the New York Times, Maureen Dowd’s opinion columns are ubiquitously cluttered with them, for example. As a New York Times reader, I had to make a choice either to love them or hate them. My speech, however, is a different story. I find it difficult to say witty things extemporaneously in speech. For instance, I make faux pas that would force the most reticent grammarian to crawl out of the woodwork to save the language from my butchering. Nevertheless, my idiolect is not devolving. Instead, it is evolving. Every day I learn new things that improve and expand my understanding of language.
* Covert Prestige, according to George Yule's The Study of Language, is "the status of a speech style or feature as having positive value, but which is 'hidden' or not valued similarly among the larger community, in contrast to overt prestige."
*Overt Prestige, accoding to George Yule's The Study of Language, is the "status that is generally recognized as 'better' or more positively valuedin the larger community, in contrast to covert prestige."


  1. I really enjoyed reading about your Idiolect.

  2. Luis... This was great!
    I have the same problemas as a Latina.
    Great Job LaGuardia... See you at the Regional Leadership Conference.

    Edith M. Estrella R.
    Phi Theta Kappa - ΦΘΚ Recording Secretary, Region of New York
    Phi Theta Kappa - ΦΘΚ President, Xi Kappa - ΞΚ Chapter

  3. You're very articulate albeit a bit self conscious; there's no shame in being seen as an intellectual - or at least there shouldn't be. You're a far better writer than me (that's not saying much - I'm a terrible writer lol) and you do the world a disservice by hiding your eloquence in speech.

    But in regards to your comment that "academia's lure arises less from obtuseness and obscurity than from clarity and conviction," I don't recall the last time I read something and felt that it was the writer's intention to confuse their reader (unless that person is Alan Greenspan). It's natural for some people to write a certain way. What may seem "obtuse" or "obscure" to you, may not necessarily be so to them or their target audience. It should not be the burden of a writer to make his work more accessible to a broader audience if he's comfortable with the way he currently writes and his target audience understands him too.

    And in response to your comment that "I don’t know anyone that enjoys reading deeply theoretical and abstract essays, including scholars," I know people who enjoy such things because it is the very nature of the theories that excite them - and they're not scholars.


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