You’re Not Uncultured: the case against the homogenization of speech at Cornell

By Mikaela Hamilton

Fairly soon after my arrival at Cornell two years ago, I began to feel that I was missing something—something that most of my peers seemed to have and that I’d never known myself to lack. Several days later, while talking on the phone with one of my friends from home, I found the word for those feelings: I simply felt “uncultured.”

My peers seemed to know the names of directors and academics I’d never heard of, made jokes about books I’d never read, and talked about places I’d never been. Even the simple act of going to the dining hall seemed to be a way of outing myself as uncultured—I’m sorry, but what’s a falafel? It was easy to feel inadequate and easy to lack a sense of real belonging, but I didn’t want this to weigh heavily on me. I acknowledged that this was the difference between an inadequate public high school education and that of an elite private school, the difference between very different parents, upbringings, and life experiences. I had to remind myself that ignorance is not indicative of intelligence. I could read more books, watch more movies, and try more foods. I could “catch up.” Still, there was an inescapable daily reminder of our differences: my speech.

My peers would comment on words I used that they perceived as unusual or “mispronounced.” Sometimes it was friendly teasing, and sometimes it was intended to be encouraging—they liked the novelty of my dialect—but it always felt like a call-out and resulted in me becoming increasingly self-conscious. I’ve always believed that there is no right way or wrong way to speak a language, and that dialects associated with lower socioeconomic status are by no means actually lesser. And yet, my speech has significantly changed in these past few years. I have become painfully aware of the extent to which my speech affects how I am perceived by others. Cornell has taught me that assimilating is the best way to come across as educated.

Isabel Ling.jpg
Art by Isabel Ling

I’ve entirely stopped saying the adverbial “wicked,” although it used to modify every one of my most enthusiastic adjectives. I try not to say the words “hot” (it sounds something like “hut”) and “water” (something like “wather”), because I have not been able to change the pronunciation to anyone’s satisfaction (“wicked hot” is right out). I always hesitate before saying “museum” (I naturally say “muse-zam”), and I still worry that I haven’t gotten the new, modified pronunciation quite right. I’ll say “I’m going to get ready for bed” instead of mentioning my pajamas (“puh-jam-uhs”). I try to reduce profanity and colloquialisms. I’ll “make a U-turn” not “bang a uey,” and I’ll say “look at this” instead of “lookit.” There are seemingly endless adjustments I’ve made in order to “fix” the way I speak, and I know that there are others at Cornell who have experienced this to a far more significant degree.

Of course, this is all situated in a larger dialogue about what is considered “proper” or “professional” language, a classification system rooted in racism and classism. There is no easy way to fix this problem, but I suppose I can at the very least end with a call to action. Please, don’t point out someone’s speech if it’s different from your own. Even if you do it in a well-meaning way (e.g.,“I love the way you say that!”), it can create a rather uncomfortable situation for the person on the receiving end. Remember not to judge intellect based on dialect. And to anyone reading this who has been made to feel this way, know that you are not “uncultured.” The way in which you express yourself is by no means inadequate, and it is reflective of nothing more than your unique background and life experiences.

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