Do words say stuff about culture, again

Over at LL, Geoff Pullum started a discussion on what the existence of certain lexical items says, if anything, about the culture (let’s say “linguistic community”) in which that lexical item lives. His line (a reasonable one) is, as always, that it says zilch. Well, go over and read the comments. I have my own contribution, but it was getting long, so I’m dumping it here, with no refinements whatsoever.

Perhaps this has been said and I missed it, but here goes: simply finding a word in a dictionary that doesn’t explain modern usage and variation of usage probably means nothing for sociocultural analysis. But, if speakers of Scotts Gaelic went around talking about whiskey-tingling all the time, or if every mention of a person involved mentioning their hetero/homosexuality, that would no doubt tell you something about (some parts of) the culture. But that’s how a word is used, or even that a word is used, not that a word exists. They’re not unrelated (duh), but quite different things.

Now, might one not make a distinction between the motivations behind the coinage of a word (or compound word; and I dare say that such motivations exist) and the ramifications (if any) of the widespread recognition and use of that word? In any field of study there is a special terminology, but the existence of those words (so long as they remain “terminology”) tells you not much other than that such a field exist(s/ed), and that some phenomena exist(s/ed) to be so named. But it’s not nothing. Some linguists do find it useful to explore the technological vocabulary that can be reconstructed for PIE, after all.

I’d say that the same goes for words with “expressive content” (to use Chris Potts’ term). The fact that words like “(a) homo” or “stingy” (compare “thrifty”) have attached to them some (let’s say) affective meaning says something at least about the sorts of stances taken towards sorts of activities. It says nothing about the culture as a whole (assuming such a thing exists), but the existence (and, potentially, persistence in everyday use) of the word can’t be taken as a mere accident of word coinage. [PS: one can always debate about the linguistic status of such content, I suppose]

In other cases, some coherent subculture may take to using a new word, or an old word with a different meaning, and then this word becomes used widely in the larger linguistic community (or maybe there were several steps in between). At each step, the reasons for adopting the word are no doubt complex and unknowable without a lot of time and mindreading abilities, and once a word like “gay” or whatever becomes widespread it probably doesn’t tell you anything about the culture of the linguistic community as a whole. If lexical-semantic change and spread is anything like phonetic change and spread, then the reasons for the existence of a word probably has little to do with the meaning per se and more to do with how speakers dealt with a new word – what social contexts in which to use it, how often to use it, etc. (NB: IANAS[ociophonetician]). But I’m open to the idea that lexical-semantic change and spread is actually lexical-semantically influenced — but not necessarily consciously. People surely pay attention to the meanings of the words they use, but if lexical semanticists have a job to do, most of the fine distinctions in meaning are inaccessible.

I X and I vote

Consider what are likely values for X in the phrasal template (nascent snowclone?) I X and I vote. Such a declaration is commonly seen on bumper stickers and sometimes in the windows of people’s places of residence. In my experience (at least the experience that I think I can recall), it’s most commonly I own a gun and I vote and I’m in the NRA and I vote. But that could just be because a house near where I used to live had such a sign up in his or her window. I briefly considered that this was more of a right-wing thing to say. But if you search on google you’ll find slogans like I’m Indian, I game and I vote, I have a dog and I vote, and I’m undead and I vote, none of which really leads one to believe that the voter in question leans one way or the other politically. Well, maybe the last one…

Let it be known that other(s) have noted and commented on this pattern, including this criticism. Others seem to be aware of the template and modify it consciously.

In any case, it seems that the non-humorous ones tend at least to be proclaiming that the person holds some fringe (I’m Pagan and I vote) or at least controversial (I’m Pro-Choice and I vote) stance. What’s interesting is what you can tell about a person from the bumper sticker beyond the two stated facts.

Okay, so I really have only one case in mind, and that’s the following bumper sticker I saw recently in Berkeley. I don’t recall the sort of car it was on, but the sticker was green, and it read

I eat tofu and I vote.

Given the connection in the West (or at least California) between tofu and vegetarianism/veganism, and (thereby?) with environmentalism, and in general progressive attitudes, I read this as a statement of progressive, or possibly just tree-hugger values. But for what class of people could you draw such a connection? And here’s where the issue of the significance of tofu-eating comes in. There are people for whom tofu eating is nothing special, myself included, but nonetheless there is at least for some people (again, myself included) a recognition of the indexicality of tofu, especially (or exclusively) among people for whom tofu is something quite special. And it is this latter group’s recognition of the specialness of tofu that lets one understand the significance of the bumper sticker. Of course it’s not so simple as all that – it’s not necessarily just about individuals who happen to eat tofu, but the historical context in which they eat it. The grown child of an immigrant from a tofu-eating nation might feel just as home with tofu as the grown child of people raised in a tofu-is-new culture. Nonetheless, the social significance of eating tofu, or at least the recognition of a historical significance, might somehow persist in the later generation, such that the driver of that car might have dietary habits observably no different from (say) mine, though it would be entirely misleading (in intent, though not in literal meaning) to put that bumper sticker on my own car.

On the other hand, if a bumper sticker were to read I eat rice and I vote we would have a rather different situation.