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.