Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's All Geek To Me: Geek Culture as a Language

I remember when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, and it really caught fire.  One of the first things that occurred to me upon seeing the public reaction to the movie was that now, if I ever mentioned an orc, there was a much greater chance that people would know what I was talking about.  The movie introduced concepts to the wider public that up until that time had been the purview of a select group of people knowledgeable on the subject.

Recently I've been thinking about idiomatic knowledge that is native to a given subset of the population and how it functions as a sort of language for that subset.  It also has occurred to me that how this languages is used sheds some light on how different people view pop culture offerings.  Language, as a whole, can be used to communicate and strengthen bonds, but it can also be used as a means of signifying membership in a closed culture, and depending on which function of language you favor, this could alter how you view mass market translations of your favorite hobbies.

In a lot of ways, I'm thrilled when people go to see Iron Man or Batman Begins, as I can actually make references to Stark Industries or Ra's al Ghul that people that have never picked up a comic book before in their lives will now understand.  I think, to a degree, this also has a lot to do with how people might view any shift in focus from the original work.  I can discuss that Ra's al Ghul is a Batman villain with a massive network of assassins working for him just fine.  If I talk about Lazarus Pits, though, the "vocabulary" of the discussion ends.

So, in some ways, among those of us that have less mainstream interests, it is actually comforting to be able to have a common frame of reference with those not of our own "clan."  We may not expect people to sit down at a table with dice and roll up a character, or pick up a trade paperback of Year One, but we can expect that the people we talk to understand us when we think that shooting orcs with bows is awe inspiring or that Obadiah Stane is a big jerk.

But there also exists the other function of language, the function that shows that you "belong," and I think this is also instructive in how some people view pop culture offerings.  While I fully agree that some adaptations are horrible, to the point that they actually do not expand "vocabulary" at all (try talking to someone about Wanted when you know it from the comics and they saw the movie), other times its very obvious that no work based on a "geeky" hobby like comic books or table top games will ever please a given person.

The reason for this is that the person in question may not want anyone else in on the conversation.  The language is a means of knowing who is and isn't "with you," and the person in question does not want someone to become conversant enough to "infiltrate" the community.  It's not nearly as paranoid as I make it sound, however.  There is a certain comfort to knowing who is and isn't likely to get a foot in the door of your discussions of something that you treasure.

I'm not really sure what all of this means, other than that this sheds a bit of a different light on discussions I've had with people over pop culture offerings that delving into the more obscure hobbies that I've participated in.


  1. Very sociolinguistically apt. "Language, as a whole, can be used to communicate and strengthen bonds, but it can also be used as a means of signifying membership in a closed culture" Covert and overt prestige could be applied here--'geek' language and other elements of geek style could have covert prestige within a certain community or subculture, but could serve to isolate you in a non-geek environment. Also talked about as in-group/out-group language. Actually, now that I think about it... there's a lot of research on geek language among girls, but not much among guys. Hmm... maybe once I finish my dissertation.

  2. Wait . . . so I'm actually somewhat lucid on cold medicine? Wow. I should be medicated all of the time.

    Honestly, coming from you, I'm glad it made some sense. ;)