Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Community Language

I was listening to the Rick and Bubba Show, a local (and syndicated) morning show, during my drive to work. The topic was World of Warcraft: The Wrath of the Lich King, which will be available for purchase one minute after midnight tonight. (Or would that be tomorrow? Whatever). Scott the Tech guy was explaining to the hosts why this event was such a big deal. He took calls which quickly devolved into WoW-speak—blood elves, fire mages, and all the other lexiconic minutiae involved with the massive online role playing game. About five minutes into the call, Bubba turned to Rick and said, "I think I'd be better off trying to understand Italian."

It was a laugh out loud moment, but there's truth in the joke. Communities often speak a language outsiders can't understand.

I used to be an X-Phile, the name for online fans of the TV show THE X-FILES. Our language included such terms and acronyms as shippers, noromos, MOTW, mytharc, MSR, CSM and the consortium. At times, we spoke in a series of subreferences, from "nobody here but the FBI's most unwanted" to "Mulder, it's me." It made perfect sense to those of us who watched the show and participated in the online discussions, but it could be a confusing tangle of terms to those who didn't.

I think for those of us who write (or want to write) for publication, it can be hard to capture the authenticity of a community without using some of the lingo. Southerners used terms that northerners don't. East coasters and west coasters, even in this day and age, still have different words for different things. And the more insular a community, the more differences you'll find.

On the other hand, too much authenticity can render your stories as incomprehensible as, well, WoW lingo to someone whose idea of role-playing game doesn't include a modem.

I like to think of writers as interpreters. We take specific characters, settings, situations and even language and interpret them into something a broad spectrum of readers can understand. So I might take an extra step to explain what MRE (meal ready to eat) is to someone who's never been in the military, or the difference between a crappie and a bass for someone who's not an avid fisherman. My readers can then have vicarious experiences through my characters without getting lost in the lexographic wilderness.

Have you ever had to play interpreter as a writer? Have you ever needed one as a reader?

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