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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Code Switching as I Learned It from My Grandmother

Although it's probably not typical of my generation, estate auctions made up a large part of my social education when I was growing up.  The women of my childhood were all antique collectors, and an important part of our social lives was spent at auctions at private houses and fairgrounds.  These are nothing like Sotheby's auctions where the so-called "auctioneer" is actually some Art historian with a faux continental accent and most of the bidding is by agents.  These are rowdy, fast-paced events in dusty front yards or livestock arenas, with auctioneers in cowboy hats calling off numbered lots of everything from tack and harness to bent coffee spoons a flutter-tongued syllabary of their own making.  A good estate auction is a social event where friends from around the state catch up, ranchers and wives eye their competitors, and buyers vie with one another in a cutthroat, symbolic contest of subtle gestures for the highest bid.   It takes time to learn that non-verbal language, and it's easy to be misunderstood; for that reason, my grandmother made me sit on my hands when I was on the auction floor until I was about seven years old. 

There's such a feeling of freedom once you learn to become a free operator, however, and you learn how to maneuver through codes at the auction house.  I blushed with pleasure the first time I had the winning bid on a lot when I was about eleven-- a beautiful old copy of A Child's Garden of Verses in maroon calico, which I outbid a dealer for and I still have.  And I have to admit, I also felt a little rush of superiority several years ago when my college in the Deep South auctioned off their impounded bikes and I was practically the only student there who knew the ropes.  I had to explain the codes to the young men around me as they scratched their heads, unable to follow the bids.

Why I'm interested in all this will take some time to explain; for the moment, let's just start with the basics on learning the social context of language use and where I first learned it existed. 

Derek Hopkins explains the Auctioneering trade on NPR, The Way We Work (via YouTube)

The point I'm getting around to is that auctioneering culture first taught me the importance of codes.  For instance, there's a lot of information floating in the chant of an auctioneer and the pace of the floor bidding.  (the link above goes to an auctioneer having some trouble working a reluctant crowd.  You can hear him falling out of cadence.)  From the inflection and melody of the auctioneer's voice, you can get an idea of the pace of bidding, whether or not the other bidder you're up against is getting uneasy or reluctant, when bidding is going to close, and even how much higher the auctioneer thinks he or she can drive the prices.  From the cadence of the ringmen's call on either side of the crier you can tell how many people are bidding and estimate when some start getting leery of the price.  Then there's the off-floor strategy, something my grandmother had down to an art.  Grandma would scan the lots casually, trying not to look too interested in any one thing, trying to figure out who else might want to bid on it, checking for dealer's cards in their shirt pockets as they ambled past.  I've personally seen her drive up the bid on things she didn't even want just to try and break a dealer's bankroll before her items came up on the block. 

As a child, I thought that the language cues I recognized at the auction-house were simply one part of a unified code of adulthood; I didn't realize how many codes there were, or that people switched between them at will.  One time when I was fifteen or sixteen, I was at an estate auction with my mother and grandmother at an old ranch.  Neither of them were above gossiping with each other about the men, "lookers" or "handsome fellas" who came to the auctions, something I thought was part of the experience and was learning to dabble in, too.  When we walked into the yard of an old ranch house, I saw a long, lean young man in the mold of Sam Elliot in an oilskin duster leaning on a fencepost, talking with another rancher about some tractor equipment off to one side.  "Wow, he's really handsome," I said to nobody in particular.  My grandmother heard me and glanced in my direction.  "No, honey," she corrected, "that is not 'handsome.'  That over there is a tall drink of water."  Then she clucked her tongue in approval at his lean cheeks and tight jeans before she sidled off in the other direction.  After all those years of learning the codes of the auction block, I had just discovered something new: there were two different sexual codes in play in my grandmother's language, and she was choosing one over the other.  Until then, I didn't even know there was a difference. 

The auction house may have taught me that there were codes, but my grandmother introduced me to the wider world of code switching. Every person's life revolves around a series of different personal  or cultural spheres, and the verbal, inflectional and gestural language we use in each one looks a little different from the other.  And most people can maintain a distinction between these different linguistic situations and switch back and forth between them as necessary.  This is our way of fitting in, picking our society or making our loyalties known.  For instance, a northerly term for a tight-fitting knitted cap is a "tuque" (sometimes spelled "took,") a French-Canadian term for a skullcap.  The only time I use this term is with a girlfriend of mine from Canada; it's a sort of our little bonding ritual as fellow northerners.   When I speak with my mother over the phone, my husband makes fun of my accent because I start to sound like my mother, rounding my o's like she does.  Around my professors, I usually lose my accent completely and speak Kinsley Amis perfect grammar; around my family, I intentionally pick up a few bad grammar habits and unique vocabulary common in my home dialect just to fit in. 

So, why do we do all this?  You can get pretty abstract with all this fairly quickly; it's discussed in anthropology, linguistics, rhetorical studies, and literature, just to hit the main ones, and they all use the terminology differently.   Just to grab one, from a literary perspective, Mikhail Bakhtin was interested in these linguistic differences in the language of the novel; he called this distinct coloration within language heteroglossia.  That is, all language has an ideological context and is colored by the environment in which it's uttered: 
[We conceive of language] as ideologically saturated, ... as a world view, ... insuring a maximum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life. (271)
In Bakhtin's view, all utterance is a statement within a certain context, carrying certain colorations or hues that reflect a specific worldview.   It's a big difference in my neck of the woods, for instance, if you call the man I mentioned before "handsome" or a "tall drink of water."  The former means simply a good-looking man, but the latter places that man within the cowboy ideal and judges him according to that culture and its mores.  While both men might be lean and good looking, the "tall drink of water" will almost always have dust on his boots.  An urban metrosexual might be a "looker," but he can really never be a "tall drink of water" because he ascribes to a different standard of masculinity than the cowboy ideal. 

When you utter the phrase, it also identifies you within that culture, too, and that you identify and approve of a specific masculine ideal.  I'm a town kid.  I didn't grow up on a homestead in the Judith Basin looking for a "tall drink of water."   My grandmother, however, did. And when she looked at that gorgeous, lean man with his Sam Elliot mustache, she didn't see the "lookers" or "handsome fellas" she normally checked out with my mother and gossiped over.  This man  was a "tall drink of water," a term I can only remember hearing her use one more time in her life, when she was referring to Johnny Cash.

But it's not the phrase tall drink of water that determines the sexual ideal or definition of masculinity-- it's the culture who utters it.  The phrase "tall drink of water" is used throughout the US, it seems, but here in the South my friends say it's more commonly used of women.   My grandmother's codes for this phrase were completely different. The culture sets the rules, not the phrase. 

My grandmother grew up on a homestead with four overprotective brothers and a hard-edged horse-breaker for a father.  She spent most of her early adulthood being defined by her rural existence and domineered by its masculine ideal, and as soon as she was old enough she tried to escape it through marriage.  Back then, I suppose that Grandma didn't want a "tall drink of water" like her father.  She married a "looker" fresh out of the Army and did her best to leave as much of her rural childhood behind.  She became a stylish, trendy woman with modern tastes, bleaching her agrarian past out of her very language.  (Well, except for her cussing, that is.  She was forever the accomplished cusser.)  She refused to ever move back into the country.  And her marriage to the "looker" ended up being a disaster.   

I didn't see Grandma switch back into those agrarian codes very often, but I did that afternoon at the auction when, for that one moment, she distinguished for me between two different masculine sexual ideals.  One ideal was one I was used to, the one that had wrecked our lives in ways I'm still figuring out.  The other was a tall drink of water. 


1) Auction paddle, from lightsoutfilms' Flickr photostream:

2) Derek Hopkins explains the Auctioneering trade on NPR, The Way We Work.  04 Sept 2009.  Web.

3)  "Cowboy Butts," from limonada's Flickr photostream:

4)  "A Real Cowboy," from YOUneak/Shannon's Flicr Photostream:

Works Cited:  

Bakhtin, Mikhail.  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I look forward to reading where you're going with this.