Sun Ra - Column for 1/14

Aspic Nation

Recently, I was returning from yet another expedition to find truly excellent sushi in our area (which was not a failure, but was also not an unqualified success), and stopped to get gas before the car stopped for me. It was remarkably cold, owing mostly to wind chill, and as I approached the cashier to purchase a refreshing beverage, a young black man stepped up to the window ahead of me. Turning to me, he said:

"(Unintelligible) (unintelligible) dayamn (unintelligible) (unintelligible) (unintelligible) Dawg!"

Now, as best I could make out, which as you can see was not very well at all, he was talking about how cold it was, so I nodded and smiled and muttered something about it being freezing. I have no idea whether I sounded to him the way he did to me, but I doubt it. Anyways, rather than musing upon his inability to speak the President's English, I found myself thinking about the form of address he used, namely, "Dog".

As recently as twenty years ago, calling someone a "dog" was an insult. Nowadays, at least in the proper context, it is merely an informal form of address, often friendly. Not, of course, for white people, unless they are adopting black forms of discourse. But I wondered, idly, how it mutated into the current usage. I also wondered how foolish it had been to get an ice-cold Diet Coke on an evening where pretty much all parts of me were ice-cold already.

Once the car heater was working, though, I returned to my ponderings, and expanded them to the general idea of language mutation, and then back down to myself, and how my language differed from the type Tom Brokaw uses. And I realized that it does so, often quite a bit, because of the numerous in-jokes and affectations that I use amongst my friends and peers. And that language changes because of and through direct person-to-person interaction.

A favorite example is the word "Nuutzbar", because I know exactly where it came from. Jasona's random name generator in a computer game he wrote. But now I and my friends use it fairly regularly to describe people who are, well, "nuutzbar". Obviously it draws from the extant term "nuts", but it would puzzle Tom Brokaw if I used it when talking to him. Another such usage is "spongy". And yet another is "Woot!", one which I personally don't use because it is too silly, but which seems to have taken root in the online gaming community, and now I find in use by people who I've never met before.

Which is probably why modern changes to the language are so frequently from the black community. Because they hang out together. White folks, when they are done working, go home and sit in front of the television. And you don't change a language, generally speaking, with a monologue. It takes a face-to-face peer group to generate and adopt new, strange usages and words, and a network of such peer groups to spread said changes. Tom Brokaw has to use the language people understand. He can't invent new words, because he can't take the time to explain what they mean, and more importantly get feedback as to whether his audience finds them good or simply stupid.

So, in addition to the list of 584,003 things that television is responsible for, I would add that it stagnates the language. Oh, certainly not as much as the Academy does in France. ("How would Louis XIV have spoken about it?" "Object-oriented programming? He wouldn't have." "HERETIC! Burn him!") But it puts the brakes on linguistic change, because it dramatically reduces social group interaction.

There are, of course, numerous exceptions. (D'oh!). But look at the complex and often ridiculous language that online computer gamers have created in the last five years, and see if television has done the same. For extra credit, check out the entirely fabricated language of "Boontling". For better or worse, television is slowing linguistic invention and change, not to mention eliminating differences between groups. Yes, it makes it easier for everyone to understand each other. But it sure don't keep things fresh, dog.

Columns by Sun Ra