Speaking In Mangled Tongues

I don’t talk right.

I mean I talk in a way that has obvious incorrect ideas in it. My idioms, my reference frame, even the ways I engage a newcomer into my life, these are all things that I feel, in a very pronounced way, are weird and wrong.

I am blessed in that now I’m old enough that I just seem eccentric, or old fashioned, or, to my students, some boring old guy. I’ve passed the time when people my own age can hear the way I speak and think ‘hey, there’s something wrong there.’ I’m also lucky in that I don’t seem to look my age, which means people my own age talk to me and think I’m just weird and young, and people younger than me have no idea if I’m five or ten years older than them.

I have been out of fundamentalist christianity for twenty years. Doesn’t matter. The effect is still there. The effect is not a byproduct of doing things in a Christian way, but rather the result of my developmental period being limited to socially conversing with about ten people who were almost all the same age as me, and almost all as limited in their experiences as me.

Our way of speaking was simplified, our poetry was dulled, our grasp of language and rhythm and meter were all deliberately contained and curtailed. I don’t know how to dance and I struggle with clapping in time with music, I am uncertain of how to even describe the way I sing or the way music works, because these words, in a period where I was building the foundations of meaning in language, were all kept from me.

We’d repeat lines from TV, over and over, but we’d only be able to do that with the TV shows that were acceptable, that our teacher didn’t ban from hearing us say. We wouldn’t hear pop music of the day, except in tiny excerpts, at places like the supermarket. The idiom and language we learned therefore mostly was imprinted with references from our adult peers, and they were deliberately stifling us. I grew up delivering the jokes of the Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Goon Show affect, but didn’t watch or participate in the common public life of my age. I learned rhetoric presentation from the preachers in my family, I learned the way you pace and build and demonstrate a point.

It’s something of an embarrassing story, but I feel more it should be embarrassing to my family than to myself, but I learned about sexual reproduction not from my parents nor from school, but from reading an expanded dictionary and looking up every single thing I could until I had a working model. That working model had to then be interpreted onto some extremely dubious source material.

This creates a corpus of reference, of performance of language that is equal parts highly technical language pronounced wrong, a melange of calliopes, dated references that predate my entire birth, and playful words from childish source material, like the actual text of Alice In Wonderland. The whole mix means that a lot of my conversation, certainly in those early days, was not so much about talking to someone and sharing ideas or getting answers to questions, but to perform at people, to present in a way that got focus, so you could convey your position.

By the way, don’t be surprised to learn it’s also racist. Accents completely confounded me growing up. We had some neighbours from down the street whose names I remember, who invited us to their home and shared curry and rice and flatbread with us, and about whom I know almost nothing but their names and maybe that they were from Pakistan. I know they were nice and I know we dressed up nice to visit them and I know we went to them once and never again thereafter. I do not remember a single word they said to me and I do not understand anything but their names, and that isn’t because I was very, very young, it’s because when I try to remember what they said, what comes out is tone, and a sort of sloppy, choppy half-way handling of language. My memory can only remember those two people saying their names.

It wasn’t like they spoke to us in Urdu, I just had no idea how to process a thick accent at that age. Or later. It took me decades to build even a familiarity with grammar structures outside of my extremely normalised experience.

This isn’t built out of, by the way, glossalalia – not speaking in tongues. We didn’t truck with that in my church. In fact, those people, we could tell, obviously, were all faking it. Some of them claimed to be possessed, but they so obviously weren’t, that was silly. We could tell that there was something nonsense about that, so we didn’t do that. Of course, we also only read the King James Bible, which meant that that corpus got to form an underpinning for how we made points, how we were compelling; we quoted scripture at one another, meaning that particular manner of speech was the way good points were made.

The way my way of speaking is composed is so obvious — to me — as impersonations of media forms. Finding my own voice, finding my own identity, is so fucking difficult. Even writing as much as I do, as often as I do, I still have these moments of you got that joke from Douglas Adams or didn’t you copy that from Yahtzee?

I was a teenager who knew the word unctuous and cephalaphore but didn’t know what motherfucker meant.

And that’s part of why I love The Locked Tomb so much HAH bet you didn’t expect that to show up here. Look, the main characters of Gideon the Ninth are essentially, two of the most homeschooled fundamentalists you’re going to see without uh, meeting people like me. But instead of making the story sad and miserable because of that, the Locked Tomb books instead decide to make sure that story is focused on cool sword fights and creepy magic rather than, like, the trauma of being locked in a small wooden box and punished for looking at the sky. That particular way of talking Gideon’s narrative voice has, which is able to be sophisticated enough to know the term liquescent, while also base and childish enough to refer to galumphing down bread. And that’s of course, setting aside that ‘galumph’ is a word I knew out of nowhere, because it’s a word my dad uses, because it was used widely on radio programs across Commonwealth nations in the 1950s and 1960s including as part of an ad campaign to refer to when a character arrived quickly.

Yeah, random tumblr user, complaining about galumph. I’m coming for you.