“When first I became one of the New Anarchists I tried all kinds of respectable disguises. I dressed up as a bishop. I read up all about bishops in our anarchist pamphlets, in Superstition the Vampire and Priests of Prey. I certainly understood from them that bishops are strange and terrible old men keeping a cruel secret from mankind. I was misinformed. When on my first appearing in episcopal gaiters in a drawing-room I cried out in a voice of thunder, ‘Down! down! presumptuous human reason!’ they found out in some way that I was not a bishop at all. I was nabbed at once. Then I made up as a millionaire; but I defended Capital with so much intelligence that a fool could see that I was quite poor. Then I tried being a major. Now I am a humanitarian myself, but I have, I hope, enough intellectual breadth to understand the position of those who, like Nietzsche, admire violence—the proud, mad war of Nature and all that, you know. I threw myself into the major. I drew my sword and waved it constantly. I called out ‘Blood!’ abstractedly, like a man calling for wine. I often said, ‘Let the weak perish; it is the Law.’ Well, well, it seems majors don’t do this. I was nabbed again.”
The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a professor of Linguistics. This blog is, by the standards of serious students of the field, pop psychology on a good day and mean-spirited lunacy on a bad one. Noam Chomsky (p.b.u.h.) probably came up with 99.93% of the principles I’m trying to independently reinvent around 1955 and absolutely did it more thoroughly (although I make up for it with panache).
That having been said, I’m a practical guy, and I’m interested in the application of linguistic principles more than I am the theory. I put things in slightly different boxes than a Linguistics professor does, but I prioritize boxes that have practical utility for my purposes (and hopefully for yours).
I use the phrase social language to describe a particular subset of sociolinguistic communication—the jargon, vocal intonation (such as vocal fry), dress, and nonverbal signals such as facial and body language—that comprises the markers for membership in a specific identity group as commonly recognized by the members of that group. In the case of identity groups whose members are obliged to write in order to belong to the group, such as academics and journalists, this extends to the writing style common to the group.
Organization of social languages is similar to the organization of other languages. Social language families are the broadest category of social language that I’m going to get into on any kind of regular basis. “Tough Guy” is a useful example of a social language family. Within Tough Guy, there are regional dialects (while a speaker of Tough Guy from Texas is likely to understand a speaker from England, they aren’t going to express themselves in quite the same way. One’s accessories constitute a significant part of one’s identity, and the Texan will almost certainly be armed while the Brit may not be. I will later discuss the ways in which carrying a weapon, concealed or otherwise, changes the way you conduct yourself in public.). There are also working social languages attached to certain vocations like “Cop” and “Nightclub Bouncer” whose use is limited to certain authorized speakers of the broader social language family and isn’t used outside of work. Like other language families, social language families occasionally intermingle. For example, “Military” and its sub-families are a blend of three ancestral language families, Tough Guy, “Corporate” and “Government.”
One way social languages differ from other languages is in their treatment of non-native speakers. The defining component of a social language is that its use connotes belonging. Unlike, say, French, which anyone can learn at home with Duolingo, a lexicon, and sufficient time (and whose native speakers are known for their willingness to assist the novice), social languages have to be learned by immersion.
Naturally, this brings us back to Dungeons & Dragons.
“Finally!” you exclaim in a voice thick with emotion, your eyes welling up with tears. “Jay, I haven’t slept since I read your last post! I babble like a conspiracy theorist about the connection between elven wizards and The American Psychological Association to my wife, who has been looking at me funny ever since! Please, Jay, I have to know—what is the connection between D&D, the DSM, and the intersection of language and identity?”
Well, since you ask nicely. But only ‘cause it’s you.
Social languages are context-sensitive—the sense of what’s being communicated depends on the frame of reference in which it’s being communicated. The social language “Goth” is about as relevant today as the social language “Punk” (which is to say “not very”), but everyone under the age of about sixty-five is at least dimly aware of Goths, so let’s use that as our example.
Here is a conversation in Goth within the Goth community’s frame of reference.
Here is a conversation in Goth outside the Goth community’s frame of reference.
The frame of reference in which a social language is spoken matters a lot, because like most (if not all) languages, social languages are dynamic—they are constantly evolving, like any other organic structure. The down side of that (at least from the point of view of speakers of that social language) is that like any other form of life, social languages are under evolutionary pressure. Sometimes circumstances lead to their extinction. The social languages of upper-class Edwardian England were lampooned even in their day. I doubt they exist in any organic form now. Trying to speak “Edwardian” correctly today (barring members of Elizabeth Windsor’s social circle) would be weird, but more importantly, it’d be impossible to do correctly—there’s no community of speakers in which to immerse yourself. It’d be a historical reenactment (an activity renowned for fine-grained accuracy).
But social languages belonging to the “Nerd” family are thriving.
“Dungeon Crawler,” the language spoken by D&D enthusiasts (“Gamer” is how an existing identity group, one which defines itself by its members’ unironic obsession with video games, self-identifies. There’s significant overlap between speakers of Gamer and Dungeon Crawler, but the Venn diagram isn’t quite a circle.) in particular, has passed a significant test, one required for the long-term survival of any social language: it has been successfully passed down to a new generation of speakers. And not just any kind of new generation, either—first-generation speakers of Dungeon Crawler have taught their own children the language.
D&D just doesn’t make the news the way it did in the 1980s. Media coverage of the game bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of wistful retrospectives you see in respectable publications like Rolling Stone about 1980s-vintage heavy metal bands like…oh, I don’t know…Judas Priest, the kind that used to be outrageous but have over the years become beloved institutions. This in part because moral panics are specific to the era in which they occur, but mainly because moral panics have historically been instigated by adults rather than teenagers. The teenagers whose dungeon crawling and heavy metal music led to a frothy admixture of genuine concern on the part of their parents and sanctimonious pearl-clutching on the part of Jack Chick and Tipper Gore have kids of their own now. They play D&D with their kids. There’s no way they’d make the exact same category mistakes regarding moral absolutism and the nature of teenage rebellion that their parents made, right?
The kids who speak Dungeon Crawler today didn’t have to hide their identities as tabletop gamers from their folks—they grew up speaking it at home. Languages in the Nerd family, generally speaking, have achieved near-total social dominance in American culture. This presents a problem for speakers of those social language families, because one of the ways those languages have not caught up with the environment in which they are spoken is that Nerd languages were originally exclusively spoken by…well…nerds.
It’s hard to appreciate how differently the way hobbies like D&D and superhero comic books are treated now as opposed to the way they were treated just twenty years ago, let alone forty-eight years ago (again, D&D was released in 1974.) (Other smart people have covered that aspect of Nerd culture, and you should read them.) If you weren’t there, the minimum context you need in order to understand the evolution of American social languages is that—whether or not this is unambiguously true today—the jocks really were on top of the social heap back then, and the nerds really were at the bottom. As such, declaring yourself to be a player of D&D in 1985 or a reader of The New Warriors in 1995 was not a recipe for social success. The consequence of that is, for much of their history, Nerd languages were most often spoken in conditions of relative secrecy.
Historically, the progression of social languages spoken by people who would suffer social consequences if they were known to understand those languages follows a fairly predictable pattern:
First their use is restricted to those who really need to know.
After a while they become a bohemian affectation.
Eventually they become marketable.
Soon after that, they become mainstream.
That’s essentially what has happened to Dungeon Crawler—the internet (whose effect on social languages has universally been to accelerate their spread at an unprecedented rate) just made it happen exponentially faster than it did to, say, Polari, the O.G. of secret social languages.
Fortunately, there exist medical professionals with rigorous training in the resolution of identity crises, the inevitable result of people at the top of the social totem pole speaking a member of the Nerd language family, which is premised on the speaker's being at the bottom. They are the heroes of the APA, who by happy coincidence, disproportionately grew up speaking social languages belonging to the Nerd family.
All kidding aside, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that psychologists are disproportionately members of the nerd community themselves. After all, these are people who spent years of formal education costing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars learning to accurately categorize people according to rigorous psychometric tests based on empirical evidence,which, as we established last time, is exactly how nerds look at other human beings.
No shame in their game, not from me. You can’t know everyone, and there’s nothing new about using mental shorthand to typify others. What I’m interested in is the motivation behind it.
In order to understand the game being played, and thus the motivation of the players, it helps to know a little about the structure of the social language of the APA, which I’m not alone in calling “Therapy-speak.” Therapy-speak is an unusual language, because it resembles “Old Marxist,” the language spoken by…well…you know.
Its resemblance is due to the fact that like Old Marxist, it is a working social language disguised as a general-purpose social language. Old Marxist was built from the ground up for the purpose of organizing revolutionaries under conditions of tremendous adversity, including the surveillance and violent disruption of their activities by a well-funded, hostile police state. Therapy-speak is designed for use in the context of the treatment of mental health, but it’s been repurposed and fused with Old Marxist.
Why would anyone make a linguistic Frankenstein’s Monster based on languages intended to convey loserdom, organize revolutionaries, and pacify mental patients, release it into the wild, and insist on its use by the general public, bringing that language's sense in which words must be used into the common frame of reference?
All kidding aside, Polari is worth reading about. It’s the subject of serious linguistic scholarship, and while I will use it as a basis for comparison throughout the course of this blog, I’m probably not going to attempt to unpack its history in any detail. It is both a secret social language and a formally recognized social language.
For the record, Marxist economic tools are best-in-class. Where commies go wrong isn’t the means by which they get to their conclusions, it’s the way they’ve historically governed when they’ve taken power. Planned economies are an offense to both the human spirit and to common sense. But anyone who’s calling wokies “socialists” is missing the point: They aren’t socialists. They’re religious zealots who have repurposed those Marxist economic tools and repackaged their insane, nihilistic neo-Calvinist worship of historically marginalized social groups with socialist aesthetics and a few cursory policy nods to the roots of those aesthetics.
For the kids in back: Tools don’t have a moral value, even intellectual ones, and intersectionality and class analysis are secrets-of-the-universe level useful. They’re just deliberately misapplied so that the only aspects of the human condition it’s socially acceptable to use them to analyze are racial and gender power differentials, in no small part so they’ll have an association with wokeness forevermore and no one else will want to use them. But no one’s stopping you from learning how they work and using them yourself.