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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


From the fan page of the late Diné comedian Vincent Craig, aka Muttonman


Around the time of our staff trip to Window Rock, I discovered the Diné comedian, the late Vincent Craig. Craig had both admirers and critics among Diné, as he liberally used both Dummitawry English and Diné bizaad to get laughs. Because we lived in Cuba, New Mexico my daughter Cheyenne was getting a small taste of what my growing up years had been like. Many of her classmates were Diné, and she enjoyed our Vincent Craig album almost as much as I did. She definitely got his language-based humor.

One evening we had dinner guests—a couple of Bilagáana friends who brought along a Diné friend of theirs. Something in our conversation reminded Cheyenne of one of Craig's sketches. I wasn't aware yet of how controversial his comedy was; to me it was just the humor of home. So when Cheyenne asked if she could tell one of the jokes, I saw no harm in it. She told it well, but it fell worse than flat. The Diné woman's response was, "Oh, yes. The accent." And one of the Bilagáana women, Kim, took me to task for allowing Cheyenne to tell what she regarded as an oppressive joke.

Kim's comment sliced deep. I didn't understand why my pain was so powerful and thought I must be overreacting. I desperately wanted to correct what felt like a huge misunderstanding. In some vague way, Kim's words reminded me of the marble-playing incident. I called her the day after the dinner and tried to explain that Dummitawry English was a language variety I'd spoken as a child and that Cheyenne, too, spoke it at times with her classmates.

"That may be, but I'm sure that when you use it, it's with a sense of one-upmanship," Kim said. With a sinking feeling, I examined myself for racism. For days I grappled with the incident without gaining equanimity.

Years later, the understanding I had sought, and so much more, slid into place with a resounding click. I was having breakfast with my friend Alicia, then a doctoral candidate in cross-cultural communication. In the course of our conversation, I used the word clear.

Alicia stopped me. "There," she said. "What you just said. That's it!"

"What are you talking about?"

"It's the way you said clear."


"Yes, you did it again. You just used an initial voiceless, unaspirated, alveolo-palatal fricative."

I understood her technical terminology from my study of linguistics and my university courses in Diné bizaad. It describes a sound that is made by placing the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth and blowing air past one side of the tongue. It makes the word clear sound something like tlear.


Alicia went on, "I've heard this different thing in your speech ever since I've known you (for nearly twenty years at that point), but I couldn't put my finger on it before. That's what it is." Her voice carried the triumph of finally having figured out something that had eluded her.


"I say it that way all the time? Not just once in a while?"

"All the time."

All the time. It's something that is a permanent part of me. It doesn't come and go, depending on where I am or whom I'm with, the way Dummitawry English does. Tears sprang to my eyes.

"I know what it is," I said. "It's a sound that occurs in a lot of Diné words, like ditłee'. Ditłee' means wet. Do you know what this means, Alicia?" Now I felt excited.

She smiled and nodded as I said, "This is part of who I am, this little linguistic quirk. It's not something I put on and take off when I'm coming and going into Dinétah."

She nodded again. She did know what it meant.

"I've been completely unaware of it."

"There. You just did it again."

I looked my question. Then, excited I said, "The /pl/ blend in completely."

I cradled this word clear and began to notice other words that I pronounce that way, like clean and click. If I work at it, I can choose to pronounce clear the way most native speakers of Standard American English do, but it is not the norm for me. I have to think about it, carefully place my tongue in the right place to form the sound that creates this tiny bit of the English language.

I was happy with my new awareness, but after a while I moved on and I more or less forgot about the importance of clear. Then one morning, I was talking to another high school staff member before class. Jamie, a Diné-Laguna student, stood nearby. Suddenly she interrupted me.

"Hey! You just said tlear!"

"Oh. Yeah, that is how I say it," I said offhandedly, but I also laughed with pleasure—at myself and at Jamie's recognition of me. I explained how Alicia had told me about my idiosyncrasy. Then I said, "So you heard it, huh?" I didn't try to keep the gratification out of my voice.

What Ilene and Lily knew, what Jamie heard, what Alicia heard, what they told me, helped me, in the end, to know something of who I am. I am not Diné—that much is obvious in so many ways. Nor am I mainstream American, whatever that is. I am someone else, someone In Between, having an identity of my own. When a child is surrounded by a culture other than the one she was born into, a long fall may be set in motion, pulling her into a cleft that lies deep between two ways of being in the world. I have discovered that if one is able to climb out of that crevice, one may lay oneself across cultural gaps—a bridge among, not only those original cultures, but among other cultures and other peoples, as well.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.


This is the final installment of "The Importance of Clear."

The last posting here from Fissure: A Life Between Cutltures, will be on Monday, 4/29/24.

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