Sometimes you stumble across a story so wonderfully eccentric and unbelievable that you have to stop yourself clapping with sheer delight (Just me then? Okay).
I experienced one such moment a few days ago when I discovered a story that put an interesting spin on emerging language.
It was a case study of a young British male whose psychiatrist thought there was something wrong with him. Assessments of his mental state found nothing out of the ordinary, but his speech was littered with strange words that the psychiatrist had never heard before.
This ‘disorganized speech’ led the psychiatrist to contemplate the notion that his patient had a thought disorder (which can indicate schizophrenia and other mental illnesses). His patient had a more mundane explanation for it, but the psychiatrist was skeptical until he did some research and discovered the patient was telling the truth. The patient didn’t have any kind of mental disorder.
He was simply speaking in local slang.
The psychiatrist was probably an old, middle-class white man so he can be forgiven for not being au courant with the ever-changing slang of British youth. But it was fascinating to think of changing language as an expression of mental illness.
Yet there is a powerful logic to the idea of communities shaping their own words and expressions to shut others from the discourse creating a situation where groups are-to quote Mark Twain-‘divided by a common language.’ It’s an affirmation of group bonds, of the value of retaining information in small groups and-whether intentionally or not- of playing with language and molding it in different ways.
But sometimes, new expressions simply develop without any intention to lock out others. On the contrary, they arise from a desire to do the opposite.
This leads me to another delightful nugget of information which was revealed to me recently via the intellectual portal that is facebook. It seems that Kigali’s vendors have developed a new term for the TV shows they sell pretty much everywhere you look. They now call them ‘ama previously’, obviously based on the fact that most TV shows have a voice-over at the beginning of each episode which explains what happened in the previous episode.
So there is a brutal logic to that kind of expression. The ‘previously’ aspect of each episode is important as it emphasizes the continuity aspect of such shows and keeps us in the loop constantly. As such, it makes some sense to turn that key idea into the phrase identifying the object itself.
There’s obviously a language barrier issue which crystallized the expression, but it doesn’t change the logic underlying it. And I think that’s something that gets overlooked quite often when slang is discussed- the logic behind it.
Words don’t survive as emerging expressions unless they can establish themselves and the logical nature of the phrases or expressions can be key.
Unfortunately it becomes hard to locate a ‘tipping point’ for phrases like this, as it’s not the kind of story the media would cover, so instead it starts by being spread and mocked on social networks before becoming a viable expression in its own right with the comic connotations removed.
And it’s interesting how this spreads from the ‘lower class’ and works its way upwards. All in all, it’s a subject I find quite fascinating.