An Ambiguous Connection

I’m generally against trying to establish hypotheses without a sufficient amount of credible backup material. In this case, however, I’ll make an exception.

East Asian art enthusiasts will be familiar with the importance of ambiguity to Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. There are a lot of proposed origins for this, not the least of all is linguistic. Both languages are about 112% homophones, which renders making puns laughably simple. Given also the complete inability of the Japanese to hurt the feelings of an interlocutor, the concept of aimai (deliberate, skillfull ambiguity) has crept its way into every facet of Japanese communication. In Indo-European languages, conversely, clarity is generally unavoidable. It would be very difficult, for instance, to be vague about the gender of a significant other in Spanish, or about when a verb takes place in English. The very semantics of Chinese and Japanese, however, leave many words without a direct referent, or perhaps with a cloud of referents, making mastery of the delicate art of conveying meaning highly frustrating, even for natives. Centuries of cultural shaping have made saying much without expressing anything an almost trivial task for the speaker of Japanese; and trying to make oneself totally understood without the flood of potential meanings of any single Chinese syllable is a nightmare for the learner. Poets from years passed until the present have spared no pains to exploit this facet of the two languages, and in all honesty, it’s hard not to appreciate the aesthetic.

Keep this information in mind when you consider the following. Those of you familiar with American pop culture will be familiar with the encroachment and near hostile takeover imposed by hip hop. And this isn’t your 1995 East Coast – West Coast hip hop, spearheaded by individuals with at least a modicum of poetic talent. No, instead, it’s your Dirty South knuckle-draggers like Waka Flocka Flame, Soulja Boy, and Gucci Mane. My crippling affinity for irony actually gives these “artists” a warm spot in my heart, and I know all the lyrics to a number of their (ear-splittingly awful) songs. And one day, while singing Lil Boosie’s “Ratchet,” I noticed a shockingly similar trend.

My intended audience will most likely be unfamiliar with terms like “bunki,” “ratchet,” or one of my personal favorites, “gwap.” If asked for their meaning, I could only give you an approximate in most cases, and in many cases, I can only guess based on context. Words like these spring up in rap songs all the time and variants occur with regular frequency in daily speech. Not truly belonging to the culture that breeds these terms, I resort to the same method any other researcher might to get to the bottom of their meaning: ask native speakers. For those of you with a native speaker at your disposal, I invite you to ask what exactly the meaning of “ratchet” is. Consult a number of sources, including the internet, and you’ll find virtually no consensus, and I guarantee that anyone you ask point blank will stare at you quizzically, as if it were somehow adorable or perhaps even offensive to ask such a thing. They could be right. It might be adorably offensive. But the series of “uh’s” and “well…” and “it’s like…” will give you a feel for where I’m going with this.

I don’t think anyone knows what these terms mean, not even their progenitors. And the reason for this appears to be a fascination with ambiguity. The less directly a word points to a particular referent in the real world, the more able it is to be associated with a feeling, or group of feelings, and therefore more widely useable. The language then becomes crowded with a vast array of words that don’t particularly mean anything, but are usable in emotional contexts, like rap songs, or express strong approval, anger, etc.

When I advanced this idea to a former professor of mine, he promptly alerted me that it is a common trend in languages to be ambiguous, thereby allowing fewer words to convey larger sets of meanings, distinguishable only in context. This reduces the burden of holding a large vocabulary for the speaker, without compromising intelligibility. And although I believe him, I like to think of this as a tenuous link between contemporary pop culture AAVE and East Asian aesthetics. I hope I offend no one’s sensibilities to say that it makes me feel rather “ratchet” to do so, in fact.