Up Front by Emma Hart


I Don't Think it Means What You Think it Means

One of the joys of raising our kids has been teaching them to speak our language. I don’t mean English, I mean the particular little dialect that's unique to our family. Like any group language, it's an agglomeration of cultural references and code-words: references to events for which I guess you had to be there. Like any group language, it's designed for speedy communication between the members, and bonding through exclusion of outsiders.

It leads to little hiccups in life (RL, meat-space), of course. Luckily, people were very accepting of my son being the only kid in his kindy using the words 'whom' and 'whilst' correctly – or indeed at all. The only problem came when he did a painting that was just the word 'HELL', painted neatly across the bottom of a large piece of paper. "Were you writing 'hello' and you ran out of room?" his teacher asked. No, he explained patiently, it said 'HELL'. "That’s where Diablo lives".

I'm not sure whether their concerns were allayed by the information that Diablo was also the reason he could read three-digit numbers and knew what a bardiche was, but they shut up about it, which I’m calling a win.

Now that our kids are older, we've been introducing them to our televisual cultural icons. They're now learning why we say 'they’re all dead, Dave' and 'fire bad, tree pretty'. I'm looking forward to teaching them about 'dammit Janet' and 'I didn’t make him for you'. Some flummox me, though: I've no idea any more where the pervasive 'I've fallen and I can't get up' came from in the first place.

I’d love to see what happens in someone's brain when they get a casual pop-culture reference, because I'm sure there's a big reward ping. Echo-response didn’t do much for me when it was:

May the Lord be with you.
And also with you.

but give me:

You're wet.
Yes, it's raining


I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit
It's the only way to be sure

and I has a happy. I once introduced myself to another Honours student solely on the basis that she was singing 'I’m going to eat you little fishy' under her breath. One of the things I love about PA System is the astonishing breadth of the cultural references – all the way from Evelyn Waugh to Ferris Bueller. The more I get, the more I feel like I belong.

At Bardic Web we can often tell how old someone is or what kind of groups they've come from by the language they use, their punctuation and grammar and which abbreviations they understand without explanation. We drew up a glossary so people could look things up without asking and highlighting their difference from the group. It’s geared more towards knowing NPC and WTF than IANALB, which we’ve never needed. Then we drew up another one for the language that we’d developed together as a group, and which was never going to be useful anywhere else. So for instance ‘this looks well Rikerable’ means ‘on the face of it, this plot situation is intractable, but I reckon if my character boffs that NPC we’ll be right’. Then there’s another layer of admin-only terms, because we found we needed words for splatter-guns and attention-whores. That's three dialects for a fairly small group.

Being from four different countries, we've had to learn to speak each other's meat-space English as well. Generally that's not been too much of a problem. I've learned what 'pony up' means, and they've stopped going OMGWTFBBQ when I describe a task as 'a piece of piss'.

In the time that Public Address has been running System, we've gone through a few words of our own. Theatre seems to have done its dash, but at the same time, I don't think I’ve seen a Theatreable situation for a while. Pendant will hang around in the background, and I’m predicting lolnui will have a slightly longer shelf-life than $%#&-quaxing, which has already mutated to just plain quaxing, but neither is in it for the long haul. (I could well be completely wrong about this. I Am Not A Linguist, but...)

Most people don't seem to really be aware that they use group language, and effortlessly slide between different dialects as the situation demands. You only tend to notice when something goes wrong – like the woman who went into her office supplies store and said 'I can has printer paper?', or the time I tried to return something on the basis that it was 'borken'. I can’t see my own group language to the extent that I often have to get someone else to read over my columns to make sure they're intelligible. (Or in some cases to see if they're offensive, because I’ve lost all concept of where a 'normal' person’s line is in that respect.)

Language indoctrination hasn't been entirely successful, I have to admit. I got an email from my daughter in the weekend asking if she could have AIM installed on her computer:
u now the one that u can, like, chat 2 each other?
That'll teach me to let her use MMORPGs. Still, as long as she's still emailing me from her bedroom instead of walking down the hall and talking to me, it's not a total loss.

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