How to babblespeak in the hot tub
Marin County, California — "Can you relate to a pork roast?" That is what the butcher asked Cyra McFadden. She recognized the jargon, but in connection with a pork roast it took her by surprise.
Not long ago, a student at San Francisco State where she was teaching told her he had not read the assigned Ray Bradbury short story because "I picked up the vibes and just couldn't get behind him." When she threatened to flunk another student for not turning in any work, he responded, "I'm not into value judgments, so don't lay your power trips on me."
Cyra McFadden was being subjected to "Marin English," a dialect preferred by many Californians. It derives its name from this plush, suburban county, north of San Francisco, where new fads and trends flourish as readily as native redwoods.
If you are into heavy changes, finding your own space, or going with the flow , chances are you live closer to the San Andreas Fault than the Hudson River. Linguistically, California and the rest of the nation remain words apart.
In a 1976 best seller called "The Serial," Cyra McFadden satirized the "laid-back" life and language of her hometown, Mill Valley, the cultural capital of Marin County. Her barbed portrait found its target and now four years later Paramount Pictures is presenting the movie version of "The Serial," starring Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld. (IT premieres in Marin County on March 28.)
Meanwhile McFadden has not retired to a hot tub with her movie profits. She continues her crusade against what she calls the "semantic spinach" of Marin English which, she says, tyrannizes conversation, not only in California but increasingly throughout the county. In the local lingo: she doesn't dig it, relate to it, or get behind it.
Grammarians on the Eastern seaboard applaud McFadden's efforts and point to Marin "mellowspeak" as sufficient evidence that the language of Californians has turned to bean curd. Writer Richard Rosen calls his book on Marin English "Psychobabble,." and describes the language as "monotonous patois."
Edwin Newman, author of "Strictly Speaking" and long-time guardian of standard English, has warned for years against vague California language seeping into the watertable and finding its way East. "Marin English isn't a separate language or dialect," he said in a telephone interview. "It is, in the word of a past period, hooey.
"It invents new phrases for old ideas, and sometimes new phrases for no ideas. Does it mean anything at all to say 'I'm getting in touch with my own insides?'
"What worries me isn't so much the effect of Marin English on the language but its larger effect on society. A society must be affected if a number of its members spend their time talking drivel."
Two California linguists -- ironically transplanted New Yorkers -- are defending the state's laid-back citizenry against the heavy artillery leveled by Newman and McFadden. Jane Falk, a linguist with a PhD, and Robin Lakoff, a Harvard-educated linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley , are writing a book on Marin English, which they describe as a semantic "breath of fresh air." They are canonizing it as a vital "substandard" American dialect and say Marin English is to the United States as Provencal French is to France.
"Marin English is an important but peculiar dialect," says Professor Lakoff. "Its speakers are not defined by social status, as in black English, nor by geographical location, as in Brooklynese, but rather by a state of mind. California has been called a state of mind, and Marin English is the dialect of that state." She further claims the dialect represents a "universal subculture" and that linguists have found literal translations of "where your head is at" in both Hebrew and Japanese.
Dialect or drivel? The two academics have reignited the debate over Marin English. Is it just part of the harmless procession of language? Might we start thinking the way we are talking?
Even Professor Frederic Cassidy at the University of Wisconsin, an expert on American dialects, doesn't know.
He has spent the last five years compiling the Dictionary of American Regional English and become an expert on regional expressions and dialects. Professor Cassidy knows, for instance, that in Connecticut a "dog-day singer" is a locust; in Wisconsin an "old maid" is non-popping popcorn; in Tennessee "yankee cotton" is snow; in New Jersey a "bucket of light" is kerosene.
Borders can make a big difference when it comes to words, says the professor. But he fuefully admits that so many of the expressions in Marin English ("hanging loose," "mellowing out" and "uptight") have crossed state lines so often that they are no longer regionalisms. For that reason he is not including them in his dictionary and said he couldn't pass judgment on their legitimacy as part of a dialect.
For linguists Lakoff and Falk, however, the regional dictionary test doesn't disqualify Marin English as a dialect. What distinguishes it is more than groovy idioms and new age vocabulary. "Marin English represents a whole style of communication, with its own syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and lexicon," says Falk.
In Marin English, she says, the preposition "into" is treated as a verb, people proclaim they are "into" skiing, or "into" farming or perhaps even "into" nuclear physics. At a party in the East someone might be asked "What do you do?" In California people ask "What are you into?"
"Speakers of Marin English think of themselves as dynamic, in constant flux. There is no permanency," says Falk. Anyone committed to something becomes a "freak." A jogger is an "exercise-freak." A gardener is a "plant-freak."
Metaphors are spatial: "being out front," "getting behind something," "where you are coming from." Abstractions are set in concrete images. People are "fragmented," "unglued," "together," or "pushed out of shape."
Phonologically, the premium is on "indistinctness rather than clarity." Words are slurred, endings are dropped. "Careful speaking is not desired among people who value immediacy and spontaneity," says Falk. "Unlike the very fast way I talk, Marin English is slow and laid-back."
Falk says the easy-going style of the West Coast dialect is frequently misinterpreted by Easterners as vague and imprecise, because they don't understand the set of highly specific meanings and rules which govern the usage of Marin English. Moreover, she adds, the very formality of standard English championed by its users is in itself a means of avoiding "real communication."
For better or worse, speakers of Marin English tend to be "bidialectal," which means they can switch it on or off, depending on the circumstance. An attorney may well speak standard English in San Francisco's financial district, but can slip into Marin English on his Sausalito houseboat.
Verbal egalitarianism seems to be the goal of the dialect. Formalities and last names are dropped to achieve what Falks calls "instant intimacy." She recalls "how shocked I was at a restaurant where you put in an order and they ask you for your first name. i thought that was terribly intrusive. Now I think any other practice is pretentious."
One man's friendliness is another man's phoniness. "New Yorkers and Californians often don't speak the same language and literally don't know where the other is coming from," says Professor Lakoff. "In Marin English pauses and hesitations in conversation are a mark of sensitivity. In standard English, they are a sign of indecisiveness. In New York, constant interruptions are a sign of interest. In Marin, interrupting is unmellow.
"Every subculture creates a language to describe what kind of people they are. Marin English represents a whole new set of values," she continues. The dialect, she says, reflects the "new camaraderie culture" that strives to be open, direct and intimate. Its words describe feelings rather than intellectualize. It is the anti-technological language of self-development and draws much of its hot tub grammar from pop psychology, the human potential movement, as well as radical activism and flower power of the old Haight-Ashbury days.
Both the proponents and critics of Marin English agree that debate over the dialect is more than an academic exercise for a handful of linguists. The way we think, after all, is shaped by our language, and Marin English, they argue, appears to represent a new way of thinking.
Warns Richard Rosen: "If psychobabble were a question of language alone, the worst one could say about it is that it is just another example of the corrosion of the English language. But the prevalence of psychobabble signifies more than a mere 'loss for words.' One never loses just words, of course, and so psychobabble represents a loss of understanding and the freedoms that accompany understanding as well."
Marin English may be of quaint interest to those who live outside of California, rather like the travel writer's guide to the local culture. But California, specifically Los Angeles, is the origin of much of the national culture -- records, television, movies and even literature. "The Serial" is coming soon to your neighborhood theater. Marin English may soon find its way to your breakfast table.