WARNING: These articles are intended to be an unfiltered look at
the emotional rollercoaster that is my personal journey of learning a
language, which by the very nature of me writing them means it’s highly
likely that some people will be offended—especially if you have an
aversion to the occasional swear, poor grammar, and general surliness.
All the views expressed are mine, so any hate mail should be sent to me, not the corporate overlords at Rosetta Stone who are paying me to write them.
This is Episode 3 of Sh*t’s Getting Real. Binge from the very beginning.
Here’s an extremely obvious take: Language is, first and foremost, a tool of communication and understanding. To be sure, there is art and whimsy and all of that wrapped up in what a language is, but without understanding, without language’s primary function as a tool of communication, there can be no whimsy or art. What’s being said or written has to be understood first and foremost. To expound on this a bit, poetry is art, but if the poetry in question is so opaque that you can’t glean any understanding from the words chosen, welp, it’s not good art. In fact, it’s not even really art at all. It’s trash disguised as art. On the flipside of that, if you can purposefully use the wrong words to convey the right ideas, you’re using language on a masterfully artful level.
. . . if you can purposefully use the wrong words to convey the right ideas, you’re using language on a masterfully artful level.
That brings me to my man Pauly Shore.
Depending on your age, you either know exactly who Pauly Shore is, or have NO earthly idea who Pauly Shore is. That’s because he became famous for a weird reason: He just kinda screwed with English in a cool way that people could endemically understand somehow.
Pauly was the son of Dinah Shore who ran the Comedy Store in LA and was a gatekeeper to young comedians everywhere. I very steadfastly refuse to do research on Dinah or Pauly for this piece, but I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that Pauly grew up in the company of some very funny people, resulting in him being pretty funny himself, albeit in an extremely unique way.
Most people in the early 90’s were introduced to Pauly Shore as a VJ on MTV. He dressed like one part gang member from the hit cult film The Warriors, and one part weird new age hippy from the ‘90s. He was cool as hell at the time, but that’s taking into account that Birkenstocks and the Spin Doctors were also cool at the time.
So what does Pauly have to do with language? Well, his main thing, his “shtick” if you will, was to kind of just repurpose or make up words and use them in a sort of new aged surfer dude parlance. Not unlike how Shakespeare just started introducing word after word into English, Pauly Shore did the same thing to a much lesser degree. And what made it interesting was that his complete repurposing of the language was somehow immediately comprehensible to his target demographic of stoner teens.
Pauly, teeth grinding through speed addled jaw spasms, would look at the camera and say “sup, buuuudies? Did we all totally plow our major grindage for some sustenance tonight?” and it was to be understood that he was asking if everyone had eaten their dinner. Words like grind, melon and edge took on any number of meanings based on the way Pauly inserted them into any given sentence and the inflection with which he delivered them. So, to reiterate, he was essentially Shakespeare, but worse, didn’t write plays, was less game changing and… well, his melon suffered major grindage before was really able to weez the juice from his whole shtick. But my point stands, as I intend to prove here, believe it or not.
Sure, grindage, melon, weeze, juice, etc., weren’t the coolest or most dynamic words ever introduced or repurposed into the dipshit lexicon but the understanding of what they meant in various contexts was endemic in a whole generation of kids. He’d kinda hacked language by being so good at it inherently that just through nothing but accent and nuance, he could use the totally wrong word in the perfectly wrong way and have it mean something totally different that everyone understood immediately. It was a real wicked googly of a move, linguistics wise.
Now, moving on:
You know what it’s like when you say something innocuous like “we’ll meet at the bar at ten,” and your friends all laugh and you say “WHAT?” and they say “you just said we’ll eat at the barf at ten,” and you say “whaaaat? No I didn’t! I am distinctly positive I said ‘we’ll meet at the bar at ten.’” At this point all your friends heartily have a laugh at your expense, and you walk away stewing because you’ve got a ton of idiot friends who all can’t hear. YOU clearly said what you had planned on, heard, and clearly remember yourself saying. These dumbasses are out here trying to make a monkey out of us, man!
Welllllll, lemme tell you about this second part of the Rosetta Stone log flume I’m on currently. The first was a stone cold breeze, but now, the pronunciation shit is, to borrow a phrase, getting real. And, at first, it can be frustrating. Ooooooh girl. I mean, I am positive I’m saying this phrase exactly like you are, random Italian lady! How am I getting an under 20% rating???? After my first lesson, which I breezed through, due in no small part to the fact that I DID have the most basic Italian vocabulary still kicking around the dusty back rooms of my mind, this was a reminder that learning a language is learning a very nuanced and not easily quantified-from-the-outside skill. It’s more in the details than you think.
To digress for a moment, you know when you hear an English speaker that’s not from your country attempt your accent? It sounds ridiculous, right? Whether you’re watching Johnny Depp pretend to be cockney or Jim Jefferies pretend to be some NRA-loving uncle, it’s cringey as hell. To that point, I really appreciate the Rosetta Stone app’s not letting me slide through like some sort of “zany-a Italian-a pizza man with the big-a mustache,” culturally insensitive accent.
Because, lemme tell you, when you first get rejected by the app, it becomes instinct, at least to me (and perhaps this is because I’m a terrible person) to try to lean into the more “It’s-a me, Mario” aspects of the accent, which, well, turns out Rosetta Stone doesn’t go for that shit any more than anyone else with any sense of decorum does.
But a funny thing happened after I tried to move on after finishing that lesson with a 71%… namely, it told me to go back and do it again or I couldn’t continue. So I did. AND HERE’S THE THING: As much as I was furious at the woman with the accent that wouldn’t recognize that I was pronouncing things exactly the same as her, when I came back, something had clicked. I could totally nail this accent so much better than I could just 20 min before. It was almost as though that old maxim about language: “the more you just immerse yourself in it, the easier it becomes,” is true. Who knew? Suddenly I felt like I had made a stride that I could actually quantify.
. . . when I came back, something had clicked. I could totally nail this accent so much better than I could just 20 min before
And so now we’re back to Pauly Shore. I’m no big city linguist, but I can guarantee you that there is study after study out there that says that the WAY you say something is as important as what you say. Have you ever seen the old cartoon The Smurfs? They’re 100 little blue men who wear no shirts and live in a bunch of toadstools with only one female Smurf and they apparently turn to gold when they’re boiled and they’re also delicious raw, as per the motivations of their long time enemy Gargamel, a bald, cat owning low grade wizard who wears a burlap sack, who is obsessed with the Smurfs for the two reasons listed above.
Anyway, the Smurf language is a lot like English except that they can Smurf any verb and replace it with Smurf. Look! I just Smurfed it just now. You see? It’s more important HOW you say what you’re saying than what you’re saying at all. Hence the success of both Pauly Shore and his Grindage, and the Smurfing success of the Smurfs.
I was made keenly aware of all this trying to match pronunciations today. Those nuances seemed to me… yo, there was a point where I thought to myself, “the way I’m saying this is not only right, but it’s COOLER sounding than what they’re saying!” but that’s because I’m an ugly American and I always am OBVIOUSLY doing the right thing. Then I remembered Pauly, and I remembered that it’s only when you know all the rules that you can break and change them yourself. And that’s some Shakespeare level shit, man.
. . . it’s only when you know all the rules that you can break and change them yourself. And that’s some Shakespeare level shit, man.
As I said at the top here: language is a tool, and its purpose is communication. You can learn all the grammar you want, but if you don’t know how the little tiny screws of the communication part fit, if you can’t nail the accent and the nuance, you aren’t using language, you’re being a parrot. But if you can gather those small bits from the corners, you may find your melon smurfing on some grindage in a totally new language, weezing juice you never knew you could possibly weeeze, buuuuuudy.
In short, good lesson. Had to do it twice. I’m relearning and retaining grammar better. My accent seems to still be shit. Upwards and beyond. I’m still very motivated and stoked.