I’ve always considered myself supremely inept at learning different languages. Five years of French, and all I really came away with is “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” (and so far, no takers), but I now realize that I have been looking at my incompetence the wrong way: in fact, I am quite fluent in another language—the language of pop culture.
Pop culture really must be its own language, or at the very least, it’s own code; we apply them to certain situations depending on who we’re talking to, and thus assign them meaning based on context. Now having majored in Linguistics, I’m well aware that no one gives a damn about what I have to say about language, but I’m just going to throw one term out there: code-switching. You know when bilingual people will use both languages seamlessly in the same sentence? Yeah, it’s like that.
In the past, I have often half-jokingly lamented that everything I say is just an amalgam of television and movie references, but now I believe that excessive referencing is a viable means of expression. We all have a cache of quotes, be they from television, movies, songs, or books, which we use to communicate with our peers. There are some that have even entered into the collective subconscious (“Luke, I am your father” anyone?), but quoting tends to be more personal and obscure than that. Quoting marks you as a member of a group or serves as a means of reaching out to a new one—I know I’m at a family reunion when Seinfeld lines are thrown around more than original thoughts, and several friendships have been strengthened with a well-placed Arrested Development quote-off.
So you can look at quotations the same way you look at idioms; they are really only understandable to people who speak the “language.” If you try to look at them literally, you are bound to end up in a world of confusion and hyperbolic sadness. When we code-switch between English (or whatever) and pop culture, we are simply looking for other people that understand both codes and are therefore able to fully appreciate the entire meaning of our utterance. If they don’t, it’s akin to using a big word that no one around you knows the meaning of—people are confused and you look like kind of a douche. And—most of the time—we want to avoid that.
We remember lines of the things we enjoy because we enjoyed the experience of watching it, and we quote things we enjoy to see if people have shared that experience. If you quote The Big Lebowski, for example, to a group of strangers, and someone responds to you with, “The Dude abides,” then you know that at some point in each of your histories, you spent two hours the exact same way. You instantly have a shared history and culture. And isn’t that what language is all about?