Few if any of us speak perfectly. Not only do we commit Freudian slips, say “um” and “like” too much and not finish our sentences—which are all simply part of the sketchiness of speech thought up on the fly—we habitually and intentionally make grammar and usage mistakes (“there’s books on the table”). It is not as ridiculous as it sounds to claim that language is to speech as a Platonic ideal of an object is to that object. There is always variation between theory and practice, and there are different degrees of variation. For Ferdinand de Saussure, “In the language itself, there are only differences,” meaning that the defining characteristic of a linguistic unit is the fact that we can distinguish it from other linguistic units. Similarly, when discussing the meanings of words, he says that any concept “is simply a value which emerges from relations with other values of a similar kind.” Just as words only exist for us in relation to other words, so it might be with different modes of speech and more broadly speaking the users of these modes of speech. But although the difference between two groups, for example, is purely differential—they can be basically indistinguishable—these distinctions are often invested with a larger significance. When one mode of speech is valued more highly than another, this arbitrary distinction becomes a matter of both taste and politics—meaning that it comes down to power.
Closer adherence to the rules of written language when speaking always signifies higher social status. In France, the Académie française formally institutionalizes speech-based hierarchy. It’s literally the government for language. But virtually nobody speaks French as prescribed by the Académie, aside from former President Jacques Chirac, who would pronounce the liaisons between almost all the words—and maybe he only did this in televised speeches, code-switching when watching soccer with his friends. In writing, however, the ideal is still to write as the Académie says one should, which, aside from spelling, is the way the Académie said one should write at the time of its foundation in the 17th century by the Cardinal de Richelieu (you might remember him as the villainous overlord from the Three Musketeers).
In the power struggle between the rules of language and everyday speech, literature holds an especially powerful place to the degree that art is socially revered. Respected writers recognized by the literary establishment have a sort of mystical authority within a community of language users because they have a hand in creating and defining linguistic beauty. If language were a kingdom they would form its priestly class: a small, powerful group that accesses and explains the unexplainable, the transcendent. They can create neologisms and have them greeted as imaginative innovations, not as barbarisms (in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov coined the word “nymphet,” meaning a highly desirable tween girl). Like the priesthood, the artistic class derives its power from a vague entity without inherent value, but its cultural capital translates into piles of cold, hard regular capital. (The Académie française is a sort of Vatican of the French literary establishment, except the cardinals write best-sellers, socialize with politicians and can have their opinions on any issue published, read and taken seriously in virtually any venue.) Saussure notes that “a language has connections with institutions of every sort: church, school, etc. These institutions in turn are intimately bound up with the literary development of a language.” Because these institutions teach language or express their institutional power by using language (often they do both), they shape the perceptions of different modes of expression. “The influence of salons, of the court, and of academies” (this is archaic today, but we might think of respected media outlets, think tanks, or public intellectuals) is even stronger because unlike schools and the church, these are institutions that root their power in cultural capital.
In this way, as briefly mentioned earlier, literary language becomes a sort of gatekeeper for spheres of power whenever it becomes differentiated from colloquial speech: “Linguistic unity may disintegrate when a spoken language undergoes the influence of a literary language… By ‘literary language’ is here to be understood not only the language of literature but also in a more general sense every variety of cultivated language,” in Saussure’s view. Literary language becomes the language of the “cultivated,” so those who do not speak it are not cultivated—thus, an in-group and an out-group are born. Saussure describes the emergence of a literary language as the election of one particular regional dialect among others as the “privileged dialect.” The privileged dialect becomes the means of communication for people whose native dialects are not mutually intelligible; it allows wider communication and access to the overarching institutions of that linguistic region.
The dialectal Other has a long history of appearing in the cultural productions of the dominant dialect. In the 1880s, for example, Emile Zola incorporated working-class slang into his often tawdry and sensationalistic novels that claimed to be scrupulous records of the life of the “common people,” and it turned out great for him: he became rich and respected by making a spectacle of poverty and degradation. Language that is not conventionally acceptable procures the thrill of transgression (which is why it’s so fun to swear). Literary language also changes very slowly compared to colloquial speech. Thus, the continued appeal of colloquial speech lies in its linguistic innovativeness, particularly when it is the dialect of a cultural out-group and thus seen as more of a novelty. For example, women adopt linguistic innovations before men do, as do younger people before older people and ethnic minorities before dominant ethnic groups. Some forms of slang within minority groups or certain professions were deliberately conceived to be unintelligible to the majority—a code to communicate in plain sight, safe from the ears of taskmasters, law enforcement, and other oppressors. But the secrecy of slang lends it an air of mystery that compels outsiders to elucidate it; thus most private languages create their own undoing.
The linguistic innovations of out-groups became particularly alluring with the rising importance of counterculture in the 1960s. In 1997, Frank Thomas wrote in The Conquest of Cool that ever since the 60s, “rebel youth culture remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment. […] [Corporate America] welcomed the youth-led cultural revolution…because they perceived in it a comrade in their own struggles to revitalize American business and the consumer order generally.” Big business could not have cashed in on counterculture without coopting the linguistic distinctiveness of young people. One example is the creation of Cool Whip in 1966: the definition of “cool” is extremely vague but I’m not sure there’s anything inherently cool about dairy-free imitation whipped cream. It just happened to be a word teenagers were using (and this ploy still works—Cool Ranch Doritos are pretty popular today). I could give examples all day, but just consider the unholy oxymoron “guerrilla marketing,” which is the use of unconventional tactics (including “stealth marketing” and “ambush marketing”) that aim to advertise without giving the appearance of really advertising.
The locus of today’s youth culture is inarguably the Internet, which seems to have more commercial possibilities than capitalism will ever exhaust. Because of the expansion of possibilities for communication and because of the sheer number of people who use it, the Internet is the ultimate source of innovation, novelty and creativity today. In particular, Twitter, which is almost wholly a linguistic medium, allows quick and far-reaching dissemination of innovative speech (or, for our elders, barbarisms): bae, on fleek, fam, thot, turn up, lit, fuccboi, to name a few recent ones. And it is easier to adopt these words into tweets than into spoken vocabulary—inauthenticity is just more visible in person. The Internet more easily allows users to try on different identities.
I’ve been speaking of Twitter slang as innovative, but innovation does not mean something is emerging from nothing. This is not to minimize the value of creative talent but rather to illustrate that when a phenomenon (a dance, a slang word, a clothing style, etc.) is hailed by the mainstream as an incredible novelty, it is often simply a preexisting phenomenon that suddenly came to popularity without its origins getting any attention. If anyone takes their eyes off listicle about why “This New Trend Is Everything” for the five seconds it takes to look into the history of the trend, its origins are often found in the subcultures of out-groups. This makes sense because out-groups are leaders of linguistic and other forms of innovation and also because their cultural practices are not already present in the mainstream and so seem novel despite their long traditions. This is all to say that most of the speech popularized by Twitter originates in the Black American vernacular. (“Fam,” for example, has appeared in hip-hop music since its beginnings.) The elements of Black American culture have always been low-hanging fruit for appropriation first by trendy young White people eager to transgress and then subsequently by corporations eager to co-opt youth counterculture. If you look at music, this happened with jazz (jazz culture even spawned the word “cool,” one of the most enduring words of the 20th century), rock and roll, R&B, hip-hop, and basically everything that has made American pop culture globally successful. Christian Lacroix said in 1993 that “Over the past decade, young black men in American inner cities have been the market most aggressively mined by brandmasters [sic] as a source of borrowed ‘meaning’ and identity… the history of cool in America is the history of African-American culture.” This is even truer today. Sagged pants originated in prisons (where belts are prohibited), was popularized by hip-hop, and today wealthy, fashionable young men who will never see a prison in their lives sag their pants too. More recently, currently ubiquitous trends slim-cut athletic wear and flashy sneakers are just adaptations of what young Black men and teenage boys in Harlem have been wearing for a while now. The origins of trends like these are quickly erased: novelty is more exciting than repurposing.
Because gigantic multinational corporations are eager to tap into not only the content of young people’s but the forms in which they express themselves, many have taken to Twitter. Burger King being on Twitter is in itself a cooptation of a medium originally intended for anonymous private individuals. Corporations have parasitically assimilated more and more of the rights of persons since the 19th century, and through Twitter and other social media they can now have linguistic identities. Institutions such as the CIA have successfully ingratiated themselves with Internet users through successful attempts at humor (the CIA tweeted “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet” on June 6, 2014). Some corporate Twitter accounts, trying their hardest to fit in, seize on the latest slang and memes to proclaim that their products are “cool,” much as Columbia Records proclaimed solidarity with youth culture and rock and roll with the 1968 ad tagline “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music.” Today’s barbaric language that causes pearl-clutching pundits to declare young people illiterate is tomorrow’s hottest signifier of hipness and consumer appeal. Mountain Dew proclaimed “Mountain Dew is the bae,” International House of Pancakes hawked “pancakes on fleek,” and Whataburger tweeted the questionable pun “more like Honey Butter Chicken BAEscuit.” In response to these insufficiently stealthy attempts at guerilla marketing, the Twitter account @Brandssayingbae emerged and began to tweet screen shots of tweets like these, made even more ridiculous out of context. Though there is still a power imbalance between linguistic in-group and out-group, the Internet offers an opportunity for absolutely anybody to expose, ridicule and condemn any person (or corporation) in a public forum of millions of people. This blurs, but does not erase, the distinctions between who controls the cultural discourse.
Language communities are defined by their distinctness from other communities, but the Internet can make these distinctions far less visible, allowing anyone to temporarily adopt identities other than their own. The great leveling-out of communication, though it gives the holders of cultural and social capital endless resources of novelty, vulgarity, shock value and otherness to mine and commodify, also slightly levels out cultural power. However, for every brand that gets put on blast by @BrandsSayingBae, another flies under the radar, successfully exploiting youth culture for financial or PR profit. Government agencies’ social media presences are the purest example of guerrilla advertising—the government is appropriating the tools of subversion. The CIA’s Twitter shows its cool, irreverent side, detracting from its primary mission of torturing and killing people it deems to be America’s enemies. When we look at the TSA’s well-curated Instagram, we are compelled to associate it with more than just racial profiling, xenophobia and invasions of personal space. There are five instances of seamless cooptation of popular speech and platforms for every time it is done clumsily—and only then do we see it plainly as inauthentic and corny, the work of a 30-something marketing consultant. But every time we call out one marketing ploy, another will occur. While the Internet allows anyone to speak and potentially be heard, it does not enable an individual to change a private or public institution. It is an ideologically neutral tool, and in an oppressive and profit-driven world, much of the Internet will be under the control of oppressive, profit-driven forces.
Fortunately, my generation knows its passions and obsessions are fleeting—viral is just a synonym for disposable. We can briefly enjoy the bursts of creativity that make their way into our pop-culture consciousness while they’re mostly unspoiled. Because we consume information in the form of a timeline, we know that within 15 seconds something new will appear to push it down, to relegate it to second newest. Soon it will be out of scrolling range and we won’t even remember it.