The Pied Piper Revisited--Sachsen von Lichtgeschwindigkeit SpecGram Vol CXLIX, No 2 Contents An Etymological Dictionary of Cognitive-Stratificational Linguistics--Advertisement

Cultural Grammaticalization

Notes from the Field

by Sam Shovel

It has been nearly two years since I first "agreed" to take this assignment. My SpecGram editor, Butch "Kamikaze Linguist" McBastard asked me one day, in an offhand way, "Hey, Shovel, you think there might be such a thing as 'Cultural Grammaticalization'?" It seemed so off-the-cuff, so unrehearsed, I felt safe in replying:

"Yeah, maybe."

I would later learn that the McBastard makes no innocent statements, no impromptu pronouncements, no chit-chat, and no small talk. But at the time I was green, and my only colorless clue was his mumbled response: "Hmm. Hmmmmm. Uh-huh." I had no idea what was in store for me, though I slept furiously that night, wracked by soon-forgotten mares of the night variety.

Two weeks later, the Editor-In-Chief hunted me down in the office and confronted me, demanding, "Do you remember that conversation we had about 'Cultural Grammaticalization'?" Of course, at the time, I had no recollection of such a conversation, but I nodded. He continued: "Good, your assignment has been approved. We're sending you to New York--to compare and contrast and all that biz. Can you handle it?" Again, a nod. "Good. Pack up all your stuff, you'll be leaving at the end of the week."

I later learned that the Mighty McBastard had wielded his heavy influence, arranging for me not only to move immediately to New York, but also arranging for me to get engaged, thus providing me with sufficient cover to investigate 'Cultural Grammaticalization' in detail, first hand.

I arrived in New York with nary a hint as to what this 'Cultural Grammaticalization' might be. But all that has changed now, and this reporter-in-exile is happy to submit the following--a tentative first example of Cultural Grammaticalization in action.

Here in upstate New York, the rules are different. All the rules are different. Phonology, syntax, and lexicon all differ from ones I grew up with in Texas. There are even a number of clear cases of historical differences in grammaticalization, most well documented in the literature.

Of course, the cultural rules are different, too. When someone says /, you are supposed to answer with the same, not with a reply to the homophonous question. But there are many interesting, non-linguistic, cultural differences, probably all of which have been studied ad nauseam in other disciplines. However, I propose here to study one of them by way of a linguistic analogy with grammaticalization to uncover the historical process by which these cultural norms have come to be, and have come to be different.

Our topic for this installment will be the running of red lights while driving.1 Clearly, since this activity is technically illegal, despite its widespread popularity, there are no prescriptive rules for how to run a red light taught to new young drivers in Driver's Ed. Rather, as with non-standard language acquired outside the classroom, the source of rules is the observation of others in one's society.

First a brief description of the difference. Here in Upstate, NY, the rule is straightforward:

(1)   The Speed Principle
            The faster a car is going, the more time it has to run the red light.
Thus a car travelling at 45 mph may run through a light that has been red longer than that which a car at 30 mph may run. Back home in Swamp Coast, Texas, the rule is also simple:
(2)   The Proximity Principle
            The closer a car is to the preceding car which has gone through the light (red or green), the older the red light may be when run.
Thus a car may run through almost any light if it is only a foot behind another car doing likewise. Meanwhile a car travelling more or less alone on a street is obliged to stop at the merest hint of pink.

There are some obvious synchronic explanations for these phenomena. In the first case, it is often necessary to "run" a yellow light if there is insufficient time to stop. The faster a car travels, the more time required. By simple extensions, travelling faster allows for more leniency with the timing of older yellow lights, i.e., red ones. In the second case, the extension is also synchronically clear: If the nose of a car makes it through an intersection before a light turns yellow, there is no harm and no foul. If the nose makes it through before a light turns red, most would turn a blind eye. By coming quickly enough on the metaphorical coattails of the preceding car, the following vehicle can simply act as though it is merely the hind part of the former.

Alas, these naive explanations lack in historical motivation, and a more thorough diachronic account is necessary. We will necessarily need to look at some relevant real-world facts in deciphering and disentangling this situation.

In the first case, the weather is ultimately at the heart of the situation. During the cold snowy2 winter, the roads commonly glaze over with ice, and any car travelling with speed is safer running a red light than trying to stop too hastily. Over time this behavior is bleached of part of its physico-cultural context, especially during what I have come to call the "Critical Period". This Critical Period is the time in early "spring"4 when there is typically a false thaw, accompanied by warmer weather, eventually turning cold again, often with more snow and ice. The natives are keenly aware of this false thaw,5 and do not readily alter their driving patterns for it. Thus, during this time, the correlation of speed with the running of red lights is increased outside of the Icy Road (IR) Context. Once the IR constraint is gone, the behavior has been culturally grammaticalized.

In the latter case, the weather has little influence over the behavior of the folk,6 and we must turn our attention elsewhere. Oddly, we must look to the Rednecks as our cutting edge cultural innovators. While it is not typically the case in linguistic matters for low status behavior to be copied and spread, in matters cultural it is the advantage gained by the behavior, not the associated status, that often carries the day. It is a well-established fact that Rednecks travel in packs.8 As pack animals, they hate to be separated. Their trucks9 are always close together when they drive, regardless of speed, and if one of them makes a light, the others must follow or lose face.10, 11 As this behavior becomes habitual, the Rednecks in question eventually generalize to all situations of following another car, regardless of the now-discarded W/B Constraint.12 Other members of the society mimic this behavior, again, not for the status or prestige, but rather for the advantage of having a method for "properly" bending the law.13

It is most fortunate that this research has been carried out in such a historically timely fashion. With the destruction of the native southerner's habitat and the increasing introduction of and contamination by alien cultures, these cultural features are rapidly being obscured and changed by the northern substrate. With time, their twisted, grotesque form would leave no trace of the subtle and beautiful history behind them, were it not for studies like this one.15

1 I must say that at first glance it seems to most visitors that people in other places drive like crazy fools. I will pass no such judgment here, but I think an explanation may become apparent during the course of this discussion: people everywhere are crazy fools--it's just that people from somewhere else are crazy in a different way.

2 Might I add "bitter, icy, hellish, freezing" and "so horrendously chill that no self-respecting southerner would be caught dead surviving it!"3

3 And might I add further: What the heck is wind chill anyway? Haven't these people ever heard of the Heat Index!?

4 And I use the term lightly.

5 This is evidenced by the fact that they so love to tease me if I show the slightest bit of happiness about the temporarily warmer weather.

6 As it is uniformly pleasant, getting only a little bit warmer in the summer.7

7 Have I mentioned how mind-numbingly cold it gets up north?

8 See Jackson, Billy Bob "Bud" and Kathy Leigh Lee, 1972, "Rednecks: Should the 'Lone Star' State really be the 'Pack Star' State?", J of B & P 25:13

9 It's always trucks.

10 Jackson and Lee '72.

11 And probably have to buy the beer.

12 i.e., With Buddies.

13 Thus arriving before one's buddies.14

14 And thus not having to buy the beer.

15 So send money, dammit!

The Pied Piper Revisited--Sachsen von Lichtgeschwindigkeit
An Etymological Dictionary of Cognitive-Stratificational Linguistics--Advertisement
SpecGram Vol CXLIX, No 2 Contents