Voices in Englishes

Like I usually do, I will explain this via music video.

In “Sunshowers,” M.I.A. uses a lot of Sri Lankan-English constructions and in makes perfect sense to do so. She has filmed the video in Sri Lanka, and she is singing about her experiences of surviving the Sri Lankan revolution. That voice she uses has rhetorical power, it’s her home voice, and it is a voice of the community. In “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued,” A. Suresh Canagarajah writes about the power of allowing the voice of writers to express this dynamic multi-cultural nature, and that doing otherwise suppresses students and writers alike.

In “Bucky Done Gun,” M.I.A. uses a lot of London street slang, another one of her home languages. This also has great rhetorical power because she is singing about the ridiculous nature of gang violence. She incorporates other slang and references other cities that she has lived in (such as New York) to weight her song with meaning, but also, to use the may authentic voices she has. I am again shamelessly referencing bell hooks when I speak of these “authentic voices.” I know that these examples are songs, and that creative use of language is tolerated in lyrics. However, the reason I use these examples is because M.I.A’s lyrics are communicating with both the content and the grammar. Canagarajah points to the effective use of home Englishes in articles and books by bell hooks and Geneva Smitherson. Their mastery of different Englishes is such that they use each one wisely, rhetorically, and creatively. They sure as hell know what they’re doing. Isn’t that what we want to teach our students? I got really excited about the idea that I might be able to discuss the power of different Englishes with my class. I love the way this works! We of course need to teach the English of the Academy, because our students will need that to survive effectively in academia. But home Englishes have their places too, and do not need to be checked at the gates.

How did I not realize the fluid, dynamic nature of voice before? Upon reflection, this was not only a powerful realization as a teacher, but also as an artist and as a person. I had a lot of voices that I was trying to overwrite because they weren’t “right.” If I had done that to my students… oh my… I don’t want to think about it. I saw my own life broken into Englishes, and I was a little in awe. Please, indulge me.

I grew up with a lot of languages floating around: German, Italian, bits of Romani, and of course, English. I never learned German, Italian, or Romani fluently, though I probably got closest with German. My Romani Grandmother speaks German, and I spent so much time with her when I was little that I even picked up some of her accent which, oddly,  slips out when I’m very tired. And then I grappled with two Englishes: specifically, my parents’ working class mill town Massachusetts English, and the deep forest of New Hampshire English (where I grew up). You can imagine what this little girl sounded like. Or can you? What would be the best example? Perhaps it’s when I was three and, standing before the broken-down car in my Easter dress, I kicked the tire and sighed “Fuckin piece-a-shit!” Or perhaps it’s when I went to school and told everyone, “Nein, we don’t read the Bible zu Hause. I have ze Greek myths at bedtime. Ist the same, ja? I like zem a wicked lot!” It wasn’t long before no one could understand a damn thing I said. And in the middle of the forest in Epsom NH, where it’s not unheard of for a 6 year old child to ride a cow to school on her own, you really don’t want to look out of place. I was already suspicious enough with my Gyspy face. So when I was nine, I decided to iron-out my English and make it the English I heard on the news, that flat non-regional grammar-tight speech. I wished to be unremarkable; I wished to be correct. I made an orphanage out of the textbook and raised my English there, apart from it’s weird, loving family.

Then of course, I had to go and complicate everything by falling in love with an Irishman and living in Ireland for three years, where I thought I would stay for good. I made every effort to fit in neatly in Ireland, assuming new spelling, new pronunciation, new rising and falling tones, and new idioms. I loved it, too. And then the  Irish recession hit and  now, here I am back in America, saying “brilliant” and “bollocks” with an Irishman at my side, keeping the traditions alive. In between NH and Ireland, I was in Virginia for school, where bits of that accent crept in, and then, magically, when I lived with my parents for a few months before moving here, my NH/MA accent came bounding back like a family dog glad to see me. And so did my weird half-German-ish accent. Oh boy. I don’t sound like a mess any more though. Maybe I never did. I’m just glad that all these Englishes are under one roof. They are a part of me, and they really do come in handy. I can address a few audiences, order and toast a pint like a lad, and probably sweet-talk a black bear. I can also write professional, polished prose when I need to do so. This is powerful stuff. This is the kind of stuff I want to teach. The trick is using the rhetorical power of speech, and being fluent in all the Englishes that we have. Our students have a new home in the academy, and it’s our job to get them speaking our language. It’s not our job to obliterate their other home Englishes.

My Romani mother in a dirndl, in Germany, when she was 12. Today, this woman sleep-talks in German.


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