PC Culture

The Natural Evolution of Language Is Not ‘Cultural Appropriation’

(Charles Mostoller)
It’s cultural cross-pollination.

Late last week, BuzzFeed published an article on the phrase “sksksksksk,” which was . . . about as silly as you’d imagine. The long and short of its argument? Among today’s youths, “sksksksksk” is a popular slang term that originated in the black community, and if you’re white and use it, you are “appropriating language from black communities.”

The concept of cultural appropriation is hardly new, but the linguistic policing that serves as the basis for the BuzzFeed article takes it to a new level. Accusations of cultural appropriation are usually leveled against white people who adopt elements of another ethnicity’s culture in a way that is perceived as making light of that culture’s history and traditions. (I say “perceived” because, of course, perception does not align with reality in every case.) But sksksksksks is different. It has no rich history; it is a rather young phrase, which, the author admits at the very end of the article, started in Brazil as a variant of “kkkkkkkk,” a standard phrase Brazilians use to express laughter in text. What’s more, English, like any language, is built on adopting new words and phrases into the mainstream. And by necessity, in order to become mainstream, a word must cross racial and cultural divides.

Though its roots are Germanic, the English we speak today was heavily influenced by French and Latin as well. It has changed over time thanks to the exchange that takes place when cultures meet and interact, from the language of Beowulf to that of Chaucer’s poems to that of Shakespeare’s plays to that of Donald Trump’s tweets. Language does not evolve for better or worse, though the last entry on that list may suggest otherwise to some; it simply changes with the times. Naturally, in a country as diverse as the United States, a great deal of cultural interaction and exchange takes place. Words and phrases that are adopted into the mainstream as slang often become so thoroughly embedded in the language that we forget where they came from.

Though other languages may still affect English, much of the linguistic evolution that occurs in the United States is internally driven by regional, dialectical, and subcultural differences. “OK,” for example, is thought to have been created during a Boston-centered abbreviation craze that coincided with a national fad of intentional humorous misspellings in the late 1830s, it being an abbreviation for “oll korrect.” “Hipster” comes from the term “hepcat,” a word coined by black jazz musicians in the early to mid 1900s to describe those in the jazz scene who were cool and in the know. “Gnarly” started out in the West Coast surfer community but burst into the mainstream in the ’80s. The groups that coined these terms have all made contributions to our language, which in turn belongs to all of us. That their creations became widespread isn’t a sign of malevolent word-stealing but of the interconnectedness of American society and the aggiornamento of American English.

The Buzzfeed article gives a few more examples of phrases white people have supposedly “appropriated” from black people in recent history: “Spill the tea,” “throw shade,” “and I oop.” It isn’t an anomaly, either; I’ve seen similar concerns expressed in The Oprah Magazine and at HuffPost, and in college I heard people rail against white appropriation of black slang all the time. It’s an argument that seems oddly removed from the reality of how language works.

I agree that true cultural appropriation is wrong and should be guarded against. Caucasians have been historically privileged in American society, and it would be wrong of us to commodify or in any way diminish the cultures of historically oppressed peoples. But the use of “sksksksks” by white teenagers isn’t offensive; it’s merely part of the natural evolution of language. And that’s the tea, sis.

Alec Dent is a freelance writer and a panelist on Ricochet’s Young Americans podcast.

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