On Assimilation

[Cross blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Let me start by saying that I do not speak English. I speak a very specific dialect of the English language—the best dialect of the English language, in fact—and that dialect is Greater Los Angeles Area Southern Californian American English. There are no “hella”s in this lexicon. It is pure. We enunciate our “r”s. Mary is merry to marry in any order you say it. “Cot” and “caught” sound the damn same.

For four years at Stanford—deep in the heart of “The Bay,” this bastion of bastardization of my beautiful Southern Californian English—I have stood strong. I have not compromised my vocabulary. I have retained my linguistic identity. I have never, ever, said “hella.”

But last week, I forsook everything I stand for.

I was on the phone in the Visitor Center. “How do I get to Stanford?” a hapless traveler asked. “I am on the freeway and do not know how to use the Googles.”

“Well, good sir,” I replied, “are you on 101 or 280?”

When I hung up the phone, I nearly cried. It pains me now to transcribe the sentence. You see, a numbered freeway is a specific object, not a general class of things, and as such requires—nay, mandates—a definite article in front of it, as Southern Californian English correctly provides and Northern Californian English grievously omits. And for the first time in twenty-two years, I had dropped the “the.”

This omission terrifies me. I am terrified that my phraseology is being poisoned. I’m terrified that my linguistic identity is being lost. But above all, I’m terrified that I’ve been here long enough to let it happen.

Almost four years have passed while I’ve been at Stanford, and I’m a different person in so many hackneyed ways that I can’t even begin to describe them. But I’m also a different person in ways I don’t notice, in things I say. I mean, I start arguments with the phrase “I mean” now. Definitely didn’t do that before coming to college, but my freshman year roommate did.

I came to college to absorb. And to absorb everything, really—lecture, textbooks, parties, friends, alcohol, food, experience—though I didn’t count on absorbing new modes of speech. Yet here it is, creeping into my syntax: the Stanford dialect. I can talk about HooTow, MemAud, MemChu, TresEx—things that, four years ago, would have sounded like a one-year-old’s first attempt at conversation.

That is frightening, but I guess it shouldn’t be. College changed me; it makes sense that it would change my vocabulary. What’s more terrifying to me, then, is the realization that after four years I’m about to undergo another lexical transformation: leaving Stanford. Already, the frequency with which “frat party” comes up in my friends’ conversations is rapidly losing ground to “dinner party.”

Four years. Four years of fountain hopping, Gaieties, Big Game, n-type MOSFETs, primal scream, Mayfield Playfield, dipole radiation, table dancing, “All Right Now,” plastic deformation, bollards, the Dish, froyo, RoHo, ProFro, HoHo, CoHo, FloMo, FroSoCo. Words and phrases I never knew—would have never known—before coming to Stanford.

Four years, and I can’t believe that at the end of it—no, scratch that, I just can’t believe that I’m at the end of it. It’s impossible to express how much I’ve learned, how much fun I’ve had, but this Sunday, someone’s going to try to sum that up in a diploma that I can hang on my wall. But at least every time I recoil in horror when I leave out the “the” in freeway names, I can just remember the four years I spent at Stanford—how they were the best four years of my twenty-two-year-old life, and how a little lexical debasement is a small price to pay for everything this place has given me.

It’s been a long road, seniors. Here’s to a hella good end of the ride.

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