Thursday, January 26, 2006

I Looked for Elvis and All I Got Was This Cab Ride

Here's another in my very popular line of posts wherein I stand in gape-jawed contemplation of a phenomenon long ago considered settled and relatively uninteresting by people with anything like my education (which does not amount to much at that).

It's a lovely, sunny day here in Memphis, and we were shuttled to our hotel this morning at O-dark-thirty by quite the delightful fellow. An elderly African-American man with an ailing Lincoln Town Car, both needed very much to be living a life of ease rather than toiling at this late date for their daily bread.

But what mostly struck me during our little ride was the language. Back in my bus driving days, I was certainly aware that young people had a language splattered with slang references that, as the years went by, were lost on me. And the young black kids were very nearly speaking another language altogether, if not from the white kids then certainly from my own tongue.

Fast forward a couple decades to this morning, where our elderly chauffeur added to this already fascinating brew the piquancy of a Tennessee drawl. And these things, taken together, in my mind completely constitute another separate language from the Iowa middle-school American English that I find myself speaking. And to make it the more fabulous, he asked "what?" to every single utterance that came out of my mouth! I lumber along, thinking somehow that I'm speaking "correctly," while here the reality was maybe akin to my speaking Portuguese to a native Spanish speaker. And to put the final nail in the coffin of my preconceptions, he offhandedly spoke in his language to a dispatcher over the radio who understood him perfectly and answered him back as unintelligibly. I raised the white flag.

This leads me to wonder how this happens. One would think that languages would, through some great cross-pollination, tend to merge together into one common language (I think of the French paranoia that encroaching English and American words will "destroy" their language). But the reality seems quite the opposite, and for reasons of circumstance or cultural identity or forces not grasped by me languages are seen to splinter off and diverge, even against the prevailing tides.

This is a fascinating cultural metaphor, really. And no doubt there are whole books, texts, tomes devoted to the subject of which I am blithely unaware. I've read about language being a "living thing" but I've not had it demonstrated so well for me, at least not recently.

I know that black culture--stemming from, or reflected in, the churches--has a respect for, and a love of, high-flown oratory and of poetic eloquence that maybe doesn't find an analog in much of mainstream white culture (which is not to say that there are no white folks who appreciate a good turn of phrase, obviously). But wherever it comes from, there seems a distinct difference in something fundamental in his language versus my own. I'm sure I haven't pinpointed it accurately or perceptively. But there's sure to be little in my own speech for this man to celebrate (and he was mightily unimpressed with a trio of pilots in his car generally), and I was aware of this as we talked. His own quiet, gravelly voice was much more melodic and poetic than mine. And his language spoke between the lines of a life lived so very different from mine, and of a comfort in his skin and in his world, a comfort with things to which I was not privy. I felt I must appear obliviously self-absorbed where he seemed, to me, tested and old and wise. It's a different comfort, I think. Just for the sound alone I would gladly have sat and listened to him talk (though I only understood about 30% on the first pass).

Ah well. It's the only impression of Memphis I can offer, since we're in an alternate hotel out in the middle of nothing. But it's a welcome experience. Would that I could manipulate the wheels of chance and waft a winning lottery ticket onto his clipboard.


Esbee said...

I am so glad regional and cultural differences exist! Language is alive, constantly changing, blending, separating, etc. So I love stories like this because they show you how few words you know. There's an entire subgenre to English of which you were unaware. Don't you find it fascinating? It's like discovering Gullah for the first time.

Kate said...

That's for true. ;-)

wunelle said...

I have to take your word about the Gullah. Since I... never heard the term! (/duck)

I think a lot on how idiomatic English is, and how much the language has changed. I took some Russian in college (I can't even count to ten anymore, in case you're looking for a translation of that phrase in a Putin speech that everyone laughs at) and I was surprised at how archaic it was, and at how similar what one learned in a book was to how the language was spoken in life. This certainly is not true of English, which seems to be always reinventing itself with slang and idioms.

Looking back, I'm sure I never learned enough of Russian to make this judgment very accurately. But such is how it seemed.

I just loved this guy's speech, the sound of it, and all the stuff that seemed wrapped up in it. His language was a window into another world, right underneath my nose. I guess that's what travel is supposed to do for us.

Even travel to Memphis.

Lizzie said...

I may have met your cabbie on a train ride once. I forget where I was going but he sat next to me and proceeded to tell me his life story over the next couple hours. I understood not a word - not his name or where he was from or anything. I enjoyed it though - everything he said he said with a really endearing laugh.

wunelle said...

I'll tell him you said Hi if we get him again tonite! ;-)

Kate said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Esbee said...

What on earth? I could have sworn I saw a comment from Kate on Gullah, so I didn't bother offering you a link. But now it's gone, so here's another:

Kate said...

Sorry Esbee. I deleted it because it sounded like I was saying, "Well Esbee didn't tell you." Which is not at all what I meant.

Miss Dani said...

Hey Bil ;)

Just to say Hi to you!
I miss yoooooou!

Bye bye ;*

wunelle said...

See? This is a hip place even for fabulous Brazilians! (Stick with me, kids, you'll go far! ;-)

Esbee said...

kate, you goof! It didn't come off like that at all!

BrianAlt said...

It is kind of bizarre that you couldn't even find a common place to communicate from.

But, as I so often seem to do when I comment on your posts, I'll diverge. Have you seen Snatch? Brad Pitt gives perhaps his best acting performance ever with an accent that can't be understood, yet somehow actually means something!