Friday, March 25, 2011

Language: The Secret Handshake

Do you remember an embarrassing moment in junior high or high school when someone used a word that you didn't understand? I remember having to plaster on the "I totally get it" face, and behind the mask, frantically search the context for clues. It was especially difficult if they were using a new slang term, or referring to something taboo that you weren't supposed to know about.

We decide so much about people based on language. Slang is almost like the password into an underground club. Especially when you're young, that's how you "weed out the nerds", or more likely, are weeded out by your peers. But if you think about it, we still do it as adults. We put a lot of value on accents. A British accent is thought to sound intelligent, but a southern accent... not so much. Not to mention Indian, Korean and Canadian accents.

Immediately upon meeting a stranger, you reveal so much more than you realize about yourself. At the very least, your country of origin, and if the stranger is from the same area, they may be able to tell what part of the state you are from. In this country, lots of people can identify New Jersey, New York and Boston accents. Here in California, a few slang terms can give away whether you are from the north or the south.

When it comes to connections and wealth, language plays a critical part in the etiquette universe. Much has been made about this in movies. If you use the local vernacular, and don't exercise an extensive vocabulary, you will be dismissed quickly as ill-mannered and unrefined.

The most interesting part of this system, is that we created it. We assigned social value to each language and accent, and we calculate that value each time we encounter someone new. There are so many pieces of our culture that function this way- as clues to someone's place in society- that informs us subconsciously of our relationship to them before we have even developed a dialogue.

What new words is Ben's generation going to make up to define themselves? What am I going to do if Urban Dictionary ever evaporates and I can't figure out what they mean? I hope I can teach him enough about how to use the tools of vocabulary and diction to allow him access to the locked doors in society that he may need to get into. It's amazing how much we need to pass onto our children to prepare them for our world, and even more incredible is how much they will create to make it completely their own.

No comments:

Post a Comment