Language as Litmus Test

I went to audition for the worship team at my local church and they handed me a sheet of paper that was entirely illegible to me. I realized I was in over my head.

We’ll come back to that.

Everyone praises the use of plain language and decries too much jargon. But, annoying and overused as it may be, insider language serves a vital purpose. It simultaneously divides and binds to maintain cohesion.

The beautiful thing is that language is not (usually) imposed at the point of a gun, but emerges freely and evolves naturally. Its power to both expand and protect groups is peaceful and usually subtle, unlike most other social cohesion mechanisms which have a political or military bent.

Language is one of the 16 kinds of network effects described in one of my favorite works about startups. A network effect is something that increases in value for all current users every time a new person adopts it (Metcalfe’s Law). Language obviously fills this role. The more people speak your language, the more valuable your language is to you and everyone else.

But, counterintuitively, insider jargon doesn’t quite follow Metcalfe’s law. It does at first. Groups that form around shared ideas or pursuits develop their own technical or cultural words or variations on their root language as a way to better communicate with each other. The nomenclature increases in value as more people learn it.

But then it doesn’t. It hits a peak at some point where the other function of jargon takes over. The exclusion of phonies, outsiders, or those who don’t belong.

This exclusion is usually seen (by outsiders) as wholly negative, but it serves a positive function as well. To continue existing, groups require cohesion. There is some minimum proximity to whatever the group is centered on that must be kept or the whole thing falls apart.

Consider a group of musicians. They don’t want total uniformity, otherwise there’s no point in expanding beyond a soloist. But they have to all be close enough to the central theme around which they orbit – a rhythm, melody, or progression.

Back to the worship team.

The exclusionary role of language among musicians is what put me in a bind when I decided to record an audition video.

Though I’m by no means a highly skilled musician, I’ve played on many worship teams over the last few decades. I usually strum my guitar looking at a piece of paper with chords written above the lyrics. “G”, “D”, “Em”, “C”, and so on.

So when I printed off the audition sheet and saw no lyrics or chords, but just a string of numbers, I was flummoxed. “1 2 1 2 – 1 5 4 1”. I thought maybe my computer accidentally spit the whole thing out in Wingdings or something.

Turns out, this church uses something called Nashville Notation. It’s a numerical music system I’d never heard of, but that is apparently popular with studio musicians in the business.

The use of this foreign (to me) musical language served as a valuable and efficient litmus test for the church. They want a certain caliber of player. Those who, like me, are out of their depth with Nashville notation, would pull the band too far from their shared center. It immediately signaled to me that this worship team is for pros. If I want to join, I’ve got to learn a new language and prove it.

The efficiency gained by using insider language as a litmus test is hard to overstate. The cohesion among the group for having gone through the rigors necessary to learn it is also powerful.

Memes serve a similar function in niche online communities. Technical speak in scientific communities. Religious lingo, sports lingo, and foodie lingo all have both the binding and separating function.

Yes, these can be used condescendingly. Yes, people can become cultists unable to communicate outside of their echo chambers. Those are easy criticisms. But the beneficial, peaceful, cohesive properties of insider jargon shouldn’t be overlooked.

I’d rather people bond and exclude with language than with walls or guns.