Thinking about George Carlin’s death has made me think about my own relationship with words. I started to think about how it came to be that I, a 11 year old who came to America from China, who didn’t speak a lick of English when I got here, am now in posession of an undergraduate degree that is almost exclusively concerned with words.
For that, I have to give credit to two things: The Cat in the Hat, and Hip-Hop. Yup, those were the two things that really made me interested in learning English. To this day, I think those two things have definitely contributed to the way I am today.
First, the Cat in the Hat. I remember picking up this book in my first ESL class in 6th grade: it attracted my attention because of the bright cover (probably one of the very few instances in which my judging a book by its cover has paid off), and also because of the weird title. As an 11 year old Chinese boy, I had no idea what the fuck a cat in a hat could possibly mean. I have to confess that over 11 years ago, I took the school’s copy of the book home without telling anyone, but in my defense, I did return it in the end.
So there I was, sitting at home with my pocket English-to-Chinese dictionary, and more confused than ever. I could find definitions for each individual word, but sentences made no sense, because back then, I had no grasp of the English syntax, so I didn’t know what a properly and/or idiomatic sentence looks like. Plus, the verse style probably threw me off. But I labored on, partly because of the crazy illustrations, and also because of the fact that the book rhymed. Yes, rhyming blew my mind back then, because to someone who didn’t speak English, having the ability to rhyme different words seemed like something unattainable, the Holy Grail, so to speak. Finally, to my mind back then, there was something unsettling about the story, or at least what I could make of the story: I mean, a cat that does magic tricks and wreak havoc? What the fuck? To be honest, that story still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (has anyone figured out what the Things are supposed to be?)
Second thing: Hip Hop. Specifically, Dr. Dre’s 2001, which dropped in 1999. By 1999, I had assumed a command of the language sufficient enough to carry on a normal conversation, read most things, and write a straight-forward paper. But what was missing, at least it appears to me now, was a command of the language that does not show pure technical grasp, but rather cultural literacy. In other words–slang–and to be more specific–profanity.
Why are slang and profanity important? My answer is roughly a Heideggerian one: because they are situated language used by people who belong to a linguistic community that is defined by more than technical rules. Proficiency with slang and profanity indicates a certain level of familiarity with one’s social context such that one knows the prevalent, if unwritten, rules and norms of society. You can always tell if someone is a foreigner, because he might have a perfect grasp of grammar and syntax (I’d even argue that most foreigners do have a better grasp of English grammar and syntax, since unlike most natives, they’ve actually had to learn it), but he will not pick up on the slangs and the idioms, and yes, the swearing, that belongs to the natives. Such things are not really governed by the same kind of logic that governs regular speech, but they are things that one picks up one just by living in a community for a certain period of time.
Having said that, I remember the first song I heard off of 2001 was “Forget About Dre,” which was the second single for that album overall. I remember hearing this song on the radio in my friend’s car, and after hearing Eminem tear through a verse, I was hooked, I was sold on it for life. Up to that point, I had never heard anyone use the English language in such an unusual way as Eminem did in that song. At first, I couldn’t even make out what he was rapping because he was rapping so quickly. Even after I found a printed sheet with the lyrics on it, I still had no idea what half of what Eminem was rapping about.
And on an even more visceral level, the very act of listening to a song filled with so many swears excited me, because as a kid, you were taught to never say these words because they were “bad.” So of course that just made me want to hear and use them all the more. Suffice to say, hearing so many “forbidden” words in one song was a kind of liberating experience for me back then.
Plus, there was something linguistically fascinating about profanity for several reasons. First, I’m always interested in the etymology of a swear word: I want to see where it came from, who or what popularized its usage, and what kind of logic governed its evolution. Second, profanity and slang, at some basic level, are very creative. Third, profanity is quite fluid when it comes to grammar, as “fuck” shows, profanity can be used almost as a substitute for any kind of word, whether it’s a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc. And depending on how creative you are, you can use multiple profanities that modify each other to create a sentence that is both colorful and interesting.
The rest, as they say, is history. So instead of taking the usual Asian immigrant route and doing really well at math, I pretty much abandoned that boat and hopped on the English bandwagon. And now, after 11 years, I have a degree that is almost completely predicated upon reading and writing, and in a year, I’m going back to another 5 to 6 years of reading and writing in a Ph.D program. Sometimes I think that maybe if I didn’t abandon math, I would have made a nice living as a computer engineer, or invest banker, or financial account, and get paid way more than I do now.
But then again, when I hear a new slang that makes me go “hmm, that’s interesting,” or whenever I hear someone like Nas kick some crazy ridiculously complicated rhyme, I’m glad that I stuck it out with The Cat in the Hat and finally understood what Dr. Dre was talking about when he says “Who you think brought you the OG’s, Eazy-E’s, Ice Cube’s, and The D.O.C.’s, the Snoop D-O-double-G’s, and the group that said ‘motherfuck the police‘?”