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We All Sound Different – We All Sound American

  • by Teresa Wilkins

“Howdy ya’ll!”

“Hey youse guys!”

“Leave your slippahs at the door!”

Have you ever noticed that, when traveling throughout the United States, you find yourself encountering different ways of speaking in different parts of the country? With over 330 million people in the United States, there are so many different ways of using language, and to understand these differences is to understand the story of America.

“Shut the light!” I call out to my boyfriend as we leave the house. He sighs and rolls his eyes. “Why do you say ‘shut the light’? It’s ‘turn off the light’! he exasperatedly exclaims. I know that the grammatically correct manner of expressing my intent is to say “turn off the light”, but in the home I was raised in, to say “shut the light” was the norm! Why is this?

As immigrants came to America in search of the promise of a new life, they brought with them their language as well as their cultural customs and traditions. Assimilating into their new culture meant learning a new language – English, widely known to be challenging to non-native speakers to learn and master. To many of these new Americans, “shut”, “close”, and “off” were used interchangeably in their native languages, and as such, were understood to be used interchangeably in their new homeland. The result? “Shut the light” became an acceptable phrase, particularly in the Italian immigrant groups in New York and the New England coastal areas.

My mother is the daughter of Italian immigrants who settled in New York. “Shut the light” is an acceptable phrase in our house, and the most common way we direct each other to turn the lights off. In unguarded moments, this is the language that I use. To my boyfriend’s chagrin, I will continue to use this phrase. To do so is a testament to the history of my family, to the history of this country, to the differences that unite us, and that make up the American experience for all of us.

Do you have any regional phrases that you use? What are some that you’ve encountered? Let us know!

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