Column: Dialect – Language Coming Out of the Isolation

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What’s the deal with all this moss? asks the new hydroponics expert. He had heard things about the weirdos from the first Mars colony – the ones that called themselves “The Seeds” – but he figured that had all just been rumors. But now that he’s actually in their habitat, seeing thick layers of vegetation instead of sterile metal sheets lining the walls, his perceptions have begun to change. This can’t be sanitary.

Please calm down, says a voice, buried deep within the foliage. You’re making my plants feel windy.

I don’t even know what that means, says the expert, trying to figure out the source of the voice – whether it belongs to a human or, somehow, emanates from each of the plants in unison.

Of course you don’t, says the voice. A human figure rustles from deep within the web of vines. Nobody understands our language but us.

Dialect, A Game About Language and How It Dies, by Thorny Games.

Dialect, A Game About Language and How It Dies, by Thorny Games.

This scene came from near the end of an unusual roleplaying game called Dialect, which I had the chance to play at this past weekend’s GenCon. GenCon, for the uninitiated, is the premier convention for hobby gaming: there are a few video game events, but for the most part, it caters to those who love games with boards, cards, and dice. I’ve been twice, and both times I’ve spent the majority of my time chasing after new roleplaying games. While there are plenty of opportunities to play Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder at the convention, it’s also the best place I know of to learn about more arcane RPGs; at last year’s con, for instance, I picked up Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, which I have written about before.

What I liked best about Sagas of the Icelanders was how it invited players to play with the social concerns of a historical moment: unlike a purely fantastic RPG, the theme of Sagas was to imagine oneself as a medieval Icelander, facing not only the stereotypical challenges of Viking warfare, but also resource scarcity, social pressures, and gender anxieties. (In D&D, one chooses her religion to determine what spells she can cast. In Sagas, one chooses her religion to make sure her neighbors won’t cause trouble for her at the Althing.)

Although Dialect has almost nothing in common with Sagas on a mechanical level, it shares a similar interest in playing with an intellectual field; in this case, language, in particular the intimate forms of language we build within various communities. The premise of Dialect is that the players portray characters within a society that has become isolated from the rest of the world; in our case, a Mars colony mission that got cut off from communications with Earth. Within that isolation, the characters invent, appropriate, and redefine words to suit their community’s needs and interests. By the end of the game, the isolation ends, and the community’s dialect comes under pressure to conform to the baseline of the larger society.

The structure of the game has a beautiful effect. As the game goes on, words that mean one thing in our daily speech come to take on very different shades of connotation. In the game I played, for example, the word windy came to mean something like “troubled, worried.” The word asset came to mean “traitor,” by means of a sarcastic comment: You’re a real asset to the mission, a character said to another who had a chance to escape the isolation without anybody else.

The game ties the community’s new words to the ideologies that define the community. In our case, these were statements like we are pioneers and desperate times call for desperate measures. As a result, the new language players invent in Dialect comes to personify the community as a whole. A community rises, defines itself, and falls, all with the use of just a few new phrases. I found it a remarkable experience.

This is what our game of Dialect looked like by the end - the cards are the new words we invented, and the lines represent the three eras of play. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

This is what our game of Dialect looked like by the end – the cards are the new words we invented, and the lines represent the three eras of play. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Dialect –- or any game like it –- can only imperfectly mimic reality, a fact that the designers readily acknowledge. The actual process of a community creating its own jargon is much more complicated than can be replicated in a three-hour roleplaying game. But the beauty of such games comes in how they invite us to reflect on the real world. Despite the science fiction trappings of our particular session, the basic scenario –- a community is formed, defines itself, becomes submerged within the broader society, confronts the conflicting desires to maintain its individuality and to be accepted by the wider world –- is highly applicable in the real world. Indeed, since GenCon, I have thought a lot about how Dialect mirrors my own experiences as a Pagan.

Take some of our words; the words that have special meanings to us. Pagan, itself, or Heathen. The notion that these terms mean “a member of a Neopagan religion” or “a member of a revivalist religion based on ancient Germanic religion”[1] seems so automatic to me that I get caught off-guard when I am reminded that most of humanity does not share these definitions. (When I first explained my writing to my dissertation advisor, she couldn’t stop chuckling: the notion of Heathen as a positive term struck her as utterly novel.) We could compile a list of these specialized terms –- indeed, I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay doing exactly that -– and observe just how many words take on different meanings in a Pagan context.

And indeed, the end of Dialect –- the encounter with the over-culture, the incentive for a community to abandon its idiosyncrasies in favor of acceptance by the outside world –- is a problem I’ve wrestled with since I was conscious of my own Paganism. The desire to be normal can be a powerful thing. I’ve made my choice by this point, but the push-and-pull of language remains ever-present. We have seen a long programme of attempts to explain Paganism in terms that are more palatable to the over-culture; recently we have seen some strong rebukes to that programme as well.

Although this process of identity-building far exceeds the scope of Dialect, I am thankful for the game giving me the opportunity to consider the issue. This is what games can do at their best: they allow us to live through the big questions in miniature, and with luck, bring some insight back with us when we return to the world outside.

 

[1] I realize we could have endless debates over whether or not these meanings actually suffice, but really, that proves my point more than anything – these are the meanings the words developed in my personal lexicon through my interactions with Pagan communities. Yours may be different, because your experience of the “Pagan community” is different.

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3 thoughts on “Column: Dialect – Language Coming Out of the Isolation

  1. Interesting idea. ” The premise of Dialect is that the players portray characters within a society that has become isolated from the rest of the world; in our case, a Mars colony mission that got cut off from communications with Earth. Within that isolation, the characters invent, appropriate, and redefine words to suit their community’s needs and interests. By the end of the game, the isolation ends, and the community’s dialect comes under pressure to conform to the baseline of the larger society.”

    Isn’t that exactly how technical language of various disciplines (medicine, physics, art, etc.) comes into existence? Aeon Magazine (oneline at Aeon.co) has an article in which this paragraph appears: “Sociologists have long tried and failed to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. In physics, though, that ‘demarcation problem’ is a non-problem, solved by the pragmatic observation that we can reliably tell an outsider when we see one. During a decade of education, we physicists learn more than the tools of the trade; we also learn the walk and talk of the community, shared through countless seminars and conferences, meetings, lectures and papers. After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country.”

    The last paragraph seems to illustrate exactly what Dialect seems to be doing; however, there is no pressure to conform to the baseline of larger society because it is a subset of that larger society as well.

    I do not see why any subculture needs to conform to the “overculture” as you put it in this paragraph: “the encounter with the over-culture, the incentive for a community to abandon its idiosyncrasies in favor of acceptance by the outside world. … The desire to be normal can be a powerful thing. … We have seen a long programmeof attempts to explain Paganism in terms that are more palatable to the over-culture; recently we have seen some strong rebukes to that programme as well.” How is that Jews or “black language (I absolutely refuse to call it “ebonics” which would be the study of black language and not the language itself) has remained vibrant without conforming to the “overculture”? Why can’t Paganism and the language it has developed over the last 50 years, also remain vibrant and growing without succumbing to outside forces?

    • How is that Jews or […] “ebonics” […] has remained vibrant without conforming to the “overculture”?By becoming bilingual. When a Black or Jewish commentator appears on the PBS News Hour, they do not speak Hebrew or Yiddish or ebonics (sorry, I love that term). They speak perhaps accented standard English, but not a dialect.I heard a story about a Black Congressman shifting between Midwest English and a dialect the white guy who told me the story could not even identify as another man got on the elevator. The Congressman spoke the languages of his constituents.Why can’t Paganism and the language it has developed over the last 50 years, also remain vibrant and growing without succumbing to outside forces?The biggest barrier to this is that we fight among ourselves, not with the overculture, about what the right words are. And I would say we have succeeded. Most of us know what is meant by widdershins, Summerland, blot or Mjolnir, even if a term is not part of our core practice, and would have to explain it to even a sympathetic outsider.

    • These days it’s usually referred to by those who study it as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. It’s not Black English because not all Black people who speak English speak it. It’s a dialect specific to American slave-descended Black culture.