Language Control

Good day to you, fellow coronaprisoners. I’m here to abuse my captive audience by talking about talking. Having a chat about having a chat. That sort of thing. The question is, is “that sort of thing” my words? And if not, whose words are they?

An element of creative writing timewasting, as I think it’s probably appropriate to refer to the rising debt with the student loans company that i incurred for three years of drinking and the most useless BA ever to have been granted, is the identification of your literary influences, practising on the determination of the literary influences of others. Mine are nakedly evident enough that complete strangers have accurately picked them out of examples of my writing–which either says something very complimentary about the once much-prized chameleonic capacity of a fanfic writer, or something very uncomplimentary about my inability to establish my own voice without relying on the linguistic tropes and tendencies of other, better writers.

It’s that last part that I want to look into now. Not so much in fiction, although it feeds into fiction the same way that every single experience and thought eventually contributes to the works produced by any given individual (and which is also why no two stories are ever going to be identical unless you actually copy out another word-for-word, and that is why yes, you should have a crack at an idea someone else has “already had”, for goodness’ sakes).

What I want navigate is the origins of habits of speech (for example: when I started this sentence, I originally phrased it as “What I want to have a navigate of”–this seems much less formal, but also indicative of a certain mindset, a habitual “nouning of the verb” which was in vogue in some internet social circles about ten years ago), and how to alter them to alter the perceived self.

I am no fan of linguistic determinism — in its logical extreme you have to ask how the hell we ever developed language in the first place — and I stringently dislike one of the more benign neuro-linguistic programming drivel ideas, that of “affirmations”, the concept of brain-washing yourself with concepts conveyed through typically syrupy and irritating language. One function that changing the way one talks has, however, is changing the group affiliations one has or is perceived to have.

At this point most people who have been on the internet for five minutes are familiar with terms like “dogwhistle” (the encoding of seemingly unrelated topics into phrases which will be understood by those from a specific sub-group, “calling up” the rest of a phrase or concept like using a whistle only dogs can hear) or “code switching” (a speaker moving between one dialect or register reserved for one group of people to another dialect or register reserved for another group of people. Typically one group will be more intimate than another or less hostile, for which a less-penetrable dialect/register to outsiders will be used, with the original definition of switching between discrete languages at the far end of the spectrum), and so on. It’s also possible if you’ve been about on the internet much you’ll have observed the linguistic changes occasioned by the gradual switch to global written communication in real-time described in Because Internet.

A visible example of what I am about to get at is a kind of generational strata of written communication online: a joke which has circulated several social media sites by now is the ease with which it’s possible to determine whether a “speaker” comes from the arbitrary generational categories of “boomer”, “gen x”, “millennial”, or “gen z/zoomer” based on how they communicate in informal text. There is certainly a grain of truth in this, but there are several other visible calibrations: social class/cultural considerations, the specific etiquette and norms of specific channels of communication, and the intended audience. The latter, of course, is true of all forms of communication: we don’t speak in the same way to strangers at a party as friends at a gathering, to partners at home, to children, to parents, to colleagues, to bosses, to classmates, to educators, to our medical care-givers. There is a wealth of “instinctive” social linguistic adjustment in each transition, and it usually takes the transplantation to a new culture with new rules or the acute social observation of someone who learns this “manually” to point out that it’s not at all instinctive.

In public spaces where a variety of voices are audible (or visible, online) we signal our affiliations to each other in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is word choices. To use a blunt example, the words “homosexual”, “gay”, and “queer” all carry different information about the speaker. Some of it may be generational, but–for example–a non-binary person may feel a lot less secure in the company of “gay” than “queer”, and most people who fall under the umbrella of LGBTQIA will distance themselves from users of “homosexual” where possible. There’s also the reclamation of terms of abuse given particular contexts: “faggot” in one person’s mouth is an extremely different proposition to another’s.

But this a bulldozer and the calibrations I’m thinking of are less obvious. Think about how language works a moment. How it changes. How neologisms and new coinings get into your vocabulary and become something you either unthinkingly use, begrudgingly accept, or self-consciously reject. Some represent marketing minds turned to politics (“Brexit”, for example), while others act in a more devious manner, introducing and associating ideas which then become normal (“ethnic cleansing” as a euphemistic, less-appalling-somehow version of “genocide” despite the absolute parity in actual behaviour; or the association of human beings with vermin by the use of dehumanising language like “swarm” or “tide” and categorising words of activity careful to avoid words like “people” which later give way to adjectives; “immigrants” then becomes “illegals”, focused not on the action but the assumption of how it was achieved, dragging associations further and further away from the guilt-inspiring “people”).

The same is true of language used in its social identification. Closed social codes aren’t always as impenetrable to outsiders as Polari (the partially Roma-derived, partially Cockney-evolved gay slang/cant of the mid-20th century), and in a world long-used to mass communication what began as a mode of communication for one group of people becomes a novelty for another, and then a “cool” way of talking, and then finally the norm. There is a conspicuous pipeline now from African-American women’s conversational habits through to white drag queens to white straight women which is only partially occasioned by the popularity of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, although that has certainly helped.

Every culture and subculture has its shibboleths, and usually when they become widely-used they’re abandoned and replaced, often the source of derision to the same cultural sections which once relied on them: very few self-identified “nerds” still think the ability to quote large chunks of Monty Python sketches verbatim qualifies as a status determinant, for example.

Without digressing too much: memes absolutely constitute semi-verbal fast-evolving shibboleths with the interesting caveat that meme mutation and social media platform jumping have set boundaries (not always adhered to, but visible).

Linguistic group-signalling can be quite subtle, often unconscious. For example, I don’t think the die-hard, Gen X Buffy fans of my acquaintance necessarily know that they’re signalling their age and former affiliations so clearly with sentences that by now naturally mimic the then-novel formations used by Joss Whedon (“get stabby”, “and this sentence? Has a question in the middle that answers itself”), but they are, and it allows them to find each other. It also paints a specific image.

A one-stop shop for often cruel lampooning of social image broadcasting through language can be found among the first genuinely online generation, those who were brought up with internet access as a given, and with the reasonable expectation that they were under observation at all times. It’s produced a generation extremely savvy to and obsessed with image projection and capable of tracking/analysing minutiae of known shibboleths–a useful skill in a world in which dogwhistling of increasingly hostile groups is a possibility.

Fortunately, writing journals and other self-analysis skills inculcated by the useless degree allow for things like this self-definition project: the analysis (probably private) of my own language use, and my ongoing discovery that in my laziness in associating on different brevity-valuing social media platforms and my general and fairly human desire to fit in with the various different and not hugely overlapping social groups I’ve acquired over the course of my life, I’ve acquired a kind of coating of linguistic tropes and tendencies. Which is all well and good, except it feels increasingly as if I am not speaking in my own self, but rather a self wearing a series of ugly and increasingly ill-fitting clothes as a camouflage, in an attempt to avoid being ill-treated or singled out.

And that is a habit formed in times that aren’t relevant any more. As someone with more confidence in the validity of my own thoughts, opinions, and most importantly in the likelihood of my welcome from friends regardless of my personal oddness and any unusual idiolect, I think it might be time that I had a go at a kind of “Konmari” on my vocabulary or verbal habits, asking myself “does this phrase spark joy or does it in fact make me feel as if I am participating in a giant social pantomime, a role play game in which I and everyone around me am locked into a series of pre-defined types and positions from which we are afforded no release?”

Also it’s really limiting my ability to write as well as I want to, to have my neurological pathways purely determined by a limited register of expression honed around the need to streamline myself into particular moulds for the comfort of others, especially when those others are often strangers with a pre-disposition to hostility.

Which is like, totally shitty.