Language, Culture and Idiocracy

Introduction

The relationship between language and culture could be viewed in both philosophical and practical terms. For instance, Whorfian’s philosophic view, according to Wardhaugh (2006, p. 225), suggests that language “provides a screen or filter to reality, it determines how speakers perceive and organize the world around them, both the natural world and the social world.” In practical terms, language has been simply described as a code that people share to communicate messages (Wardhaugh, 2006). Moreover, as a code, language has been seen as an artifact that, according to Vialle et al. (2005, p. 49), resides among “those things that are manufactured and created by the people through the history of their culture in order to enhance their actions and abilities.” Similarly, as an artifact, Brown (1994, p. 165) suggests, “language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language, the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture.”

Maybe the easiest way to describe this relationship is what Wardhaugh (2006, p. 221) calls “know-how,” which may or may not involve music, literature, the arts or other shared interests. However, ‘know how’ implies a right or wrong way of knowing. In other words, language could also be a moral code. Take Allott’s view of morality: He explains that “Morality consists of codes of behaviors which the members of a society feel they ought to follow, but the content of codes can vary greatly” (Allott, 1991, “What is…”).  Allott (1991, “Postscript”) adds that because, “Language is a source of group unity and difference; language codifies and transmits moral rules.” Yet, as the word ‘rules’ connotes maintaining order, language, by its nature, changes (Wolfram, 2005).

This essay, therefore, discusses the relationship between language and culture, along with morality and change.  The science fiction comedy ‘Idiocracy‘ (Judge, 2006) serves as a cultural reference in the discussion. After the film is described, the discussion turns to cultural influences on language change and efforts to control both. Then, language policy in the US is examined. Finally, the impact of language and culture on policy, planning and teaching efforts is discussed.

Idiocracy

The depiction of language and culture in science fiction is nothing new. Ridley Scott’s (1982) ‘Blade Runner’ had Los Angeles “city speech,” with Japanese, Spanish and German converging in the year 2019, and the film ‘Code 46′ (Winterbloom, 2003), set somewhere in the future, showed a code-switching culture of English, Spanish, French and Chinese.

Idiocracy, as the title might suggest, parodies culture and language with absurd yet plausible assertions. For instance, the story is set in the year 2505, when people have become obsessed with, among other things, asinine television programs (e.g. ‘Ow, my balls!’), pornography and monster truck rallies. The President of the United States is a three-time ‘Smackdown!’ champion and former porn superstar. Standard American English has, as the narrator (Mann, 2006) describes, “Deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, Valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts.” Everyday speech and advertisements are riddled with 20th century expletives. French fries, for example, come in ‘big-ass’ sizes. The film constructs a theory that “Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it simply began to reward those that reproduced the most [in this case the least intelligent] and left the intelligent to become an endangered species” (Mann, 2006).

While the film appears remarkably profane, crude and silly, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, it looks Whorfian, as it demonstrates how “the language you speak helps to form your world-view” (Wardhaugh, 2006, p. 225). The filmmakers simply see the world as increasingly moronic; unlike those other science fiction films, ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Code 46′, that envisioned a future of multiculturalism and advanced technologies. Indeed, here the idiotic culture is vividly expressed through the use of language. One character (Shepard, 2006), for instance, watching the “Masturbation channel,” yells at an intruder, “Go away, baten!” Yet, to call the culture of ‘Idiocracy’ moronic or idiotic is actually not fair because, first, by what standard is language judged and, second, if arguably unacceptable language gains prominence, is that not acceptable?

Rather a mess

Britain’s Prince Charles once said of Americans that “People tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be.” Adding, “I think we have to be a bit careful, otherwise the whole thing can get rather a mess” (Rohde, 2005, ¶ 23). Prince Charles has observed correctly that people invent words, but he appears to deny that our creativity leads to languages change, like it or not (Fromkin and Rodham, 1998; Wardhaugh, 2006). Interestingly, change in mainstream language is often created in its sub-cultures (Wolfram, 2005) with the help of mainstream media (Chambers, 2005). During the 1980s, for example, young southern Californian girls helped popularize a “Valley Girl” manner of speech that, according to Wolfram (2005, ¶ 1), has “spread throughout the English-speaking world.” The dialect includes the habitual use of ‘like’, as in ‘Like, oh my god!’ (Bushstaller, 2001b) as well as a quotative use (Wolfram, 2005), as in ‘My mom is like, “Your grades are terrible!”‘

Young black Americans have also had an influence on the mainstream vernacular (Lee, 1999). In 1994, for instance, CBS News anchor Dan Rather used the term “dissing” to describe bickering political candidates (Lee, 1999, p. 369). In 1998, a White House spokesman avoided a reporter’s question by saying “Don’t go there” (Lee, 1999, p. 369).  Popular media, according to Chambers (2005), supports language change by spreading slang or potentially new words around. For instance, the word ‘pimp’ could gain added meaning through the TV show called ‘Pimp My Ride’ (Beresford-Redman and Hurvitz, 2004). The word used here refers to a pimp’s style, not the business of brokering prostitutes. Another TV program, called ’30 Rock,’ had a storyline that revolved around the pornographic acronym MILF; a reference to mothers desired for sex by younger men, who in this case were 8th grade boys (Wyatt, 2008).

What is important to note is that none of these words or phrases were created by the media. In fact, Chambers (2005 ¶ 17) reports that there is “zero evidence” showing TV itself influences language change, beyond spreading words that already exist in a culture. For language change to occur, “face-to-face” interaction must be involved (Chambers, 2005, ¶ 24). In any case, a more pertinent concern may be the tolerance of phrases like ‘pimp my ride’ and ‘MILF’ on prime time TV and what that says about our culture.

Sandcastles

Anthropologist Jared Diamond (2005, p. 449) refers to a concept called “creeping normalcy,” where changes occur in a system over a long period of time that are so slight they go unnoticed until the change has become a detriment. For example, Allott’s (1991) assertion that “language codifies and transmits moral rules” reflects the underlying message in ‘Idiocracy’; that today’s culture could lead to tomorrow’s problems. Still, that depends on whether one perceives certain leisurely habits and profanities of today as potential problems tomorrow. Morality, as Allott (1991, “What is…”) suggested, is a relative term (“the content of codes can vary greatly”).

Who is to say what is or is not moral, acceptable, profane, or obscene and so on?  There is no definitive answer, but in America there are at least two organizations that make moral judgments for us. First is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA establishes viewing guidelines (i.e. ratings) for films based on language, nudity and violence (Dick, 2006). While this panel was established to only include parents with young children, MPAA members have also been childless or had adult children (Dick, 2006), which implies that moral judgments factor into their decision making. The second organization is the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). The FCC punishes public broadcasters who allow language or material deemed by the Supreme Court to be obscene, although indecent or profane content can be broadcast at certain times (FCC, 2007). The Supreme Court defines ‘obscene’ by the following “three-pronged” test:

  • An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
  • The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

(FCC, 2007, ¶ 2)

The FCC website (2007, ¶ 4) also explains that indecent content includes, “patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity,” again, determined by ‘contemporary community standards’. Profanity includes “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance” (¶ 7). While these organizations could be purposeful, they only filter reality, essentially building sandcastles around our culture, and its young people in particular, with moral judgments about our ever-changing language. Moreover, as young people often lead language change (Wolfram, 2005) they also become tomorrow’s adult decision makers, deciding what language to spread around. As we move forward, what might that mean culturally?

Prophecy or policy?

While Idiocracy did well with many film critics (e.g. Chocano, 2006; Koehler, 2006), one day it may be sociolinguists or anthropologists offering appraisals. In the meantime, the language trend the film suggests has been supported in a study that involved over 3000 participants and reported how “swear words are a marked feature of casual conversations of young Americans, with four taboo words occurring among the first twenty key words – fuck, shit, fucking, fucked – and many others occurring beyond the top twenty, including ass, asshole, shitty, damn and bastard(s)” (Barbieri, 2008, p. 64).

Given this propensity of ‘taboo’ words, such as those suggested in the study, one might think America had no language policy or interest in its quality. As it turns out, America does not have an official language policy (Wardhaugh, 2006; World Factbook, USA, 2008). Yet, public schooling and the news media reflect ‘standard American English’ (Fromkin and Rodham, 1998; Wardhaugh, 2006) and roughly 80% of its inhabitants speak English (World Factbook, USA, 2008). Thus, by default, standard American English could be perceived as the official language.

Huntington (2004, cited in Wardhaugh, 2006, p. 369) has suggested that this de facto patent, “began to erode in the 1960s and continues to do so still under an influx of immigrants, a tolerance of multilingualism, the encouragement of bilingualism, the rise of group identities based on race, ethnicity, and gender, the growing commitment of elites to cosmopolitan identities and globalization…”. Huntington’s assessment reflects an assertion that language policy is less about language than “who will continue to have political and economic influence” (Geller, 2006, ¶ 7). In other words, a dominate culture reinforces its own cultural interests as the policy makers (Sanders, 1993). If, in the US,  the interest was in the quality of language, maybe Prince Charles would have had less to complain about or, as seen in the photo below, the English-only advocate would spell better.

 Photo from “Anti-immigration protester needs a spell-check” (Pitney, 2008)

Policy is only a word

Language policies, in terms of quality, cannot withstand language change. France, for example, has a French-only language policy with, according to the World Factbook (France, 2008), 100% of its inhabitants speaking French. But the French-only policy has not prevented some speakers from referring to Vendredi, Samedi and Dimanche as “le weekend” (Geller, 2006, ¶ 32). Wolfram (2005), suggests the value and associations that the dominant culture has for novel language will determine whether or not it gains acceptance in the mainstream vernacular. As we have seen, and Wolfram (2005, ¶ 3) notes, “Most language change actually starts subtly and unconsciously among the lower classes and spreads.” Therefore, and in all fairness, language change is more a co-operative event than solely top-down, and ultimately indiscriminant of any policy, plan or teaching effort.

Still, that is not to say a language policy is useless. On the contrary, as a code that people use to share messages, people in a common land may rely on their common code to function and interact in society (Sanders, 1993), be it an official policy, as in France (Wardhaugh, 2006; World Factbook, France, 2008) or an unofficial practice like in the US (Wardhaugh, 2006; World Factbook, US, 2008). On the other hand, a country’s official policy may embrace the usage of more than one language, such as Switzerland (Wardhaugh, 2006; World Factbook, Switzerland, 2008) and appease its multicultural inhabitants. At the individual level, parents, in particular, may want to maintain certain moral values with their children; therefore, the guidelines offered by organizations like the MPAA and FCC attempt to serve those needs.

‘Idiocracy’ concludes with a redeeming message. The eventual president and main character from the present day, 2005, tells the nation that there was a time when people thought reading was “cool” and people wrote meaningful stories and films (Wilson, 2006). Finally, to rousing applause and middle-finger salutes, the president (Wilson, 2006) proclaims “That time could come again!”

Conclusion

This essay has emphasized the inevitability of change in language that will occur regardless of any organized efforts to subvert or direct it. While there are organizations set up, like the MPAA and FCC, to caution or restrict the use of particular language in the media, these organizations are really making moral judgments about language, and therefore culture that are arguably futile. Futile because language changes and the media displays pre-existing forms anyway. As ‘Idiocracy’ suggests, language that is perceived to be bad or good today, could be worse or better tomorrow; the only certainty is it will be different. The president’s final speech in the film talked about how being smart was once considered good, but the suggestion was relative to his opinion of 2005, or earlier, and what he saw in the future.

It would be contradictory for this paper to make its own recommendation about language policy, or planning, or teaching efforts now or in the future; that would be yet another moral judgment. Therefore the parting advice author David McCullough once offered a group of university graduates could be appropriate here, in conclusion: “Please, please do what you can to cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation.” He added, “Just imagine if in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy had said, ‘Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually.” Like the assertions in ‘Idiocracy’, McCullough’s request is neither absurd nor implausible.

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