IF there is one thing that unites Americans of all stripes, it is the belief that, whatever progress our country might be making, we are moving backward on language. Just look at the crusty discourse level of comments sections and the recreational choppiness of text messages and hit pop songs.
However, amid what often seems like the slack-jawed devolution of a once-mighty language, we can find evidence for, of all things, a growing sophistication.
Yes, sophistication — even in the likes of, well, “like,” used so prolifically by people under a certain age. We associate it with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.
“Like” often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point. To say, “This is, like, the only way to make it work,” is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypothetical-ness.
“Like, the only way to do it” operates on the same principle as other expressions, such as making a request with the phrasing, “If you could open the door …” — hypothetical, when what you intend is quite concrete. “Like” can seem somehow sloppier, but only because youth and novelty always have a way of seeming sloppy.
What’s actually happening is that casual American speech is, in its “like” fetish, more polite than it was before. Sooner than we know it, the people using “like” this way will be on walkers, and all will be right with the world.
The use of “totally” mines the same vein. “He’s totally going to call you” does not mean “He is going to call you in a total fashion.” It has a more specific meaning, although only handled subconsciously by speakers, as so much of language is. “He’s totally going to call you” contains an implication: that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t. As with “like,” “totally” tracks and nods to the opinions of others. It’s totally civilized.
Linguistically, underneath the distractions of incivility, America is taking a page from Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” There is, overall, an awareness of the states of minds of others in much of what is typically regarded as Clearasil-scented grammatical sloth.
Texting’s famous “lol,” for instance, started as literally meaning “laugh out loud,” but now serves the same function as the quiet chuckles and giggles that decorate most casual conversations, as I learned in research I did with my student Laura Milmed. Lol creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.
“I just studied for three hours lol” — no one would say that guffawing. It is a graphic titter, channeling the very particular drudgery the texter and the receiver both associate with studying. It warms texting up into a graphic kind of spoken conversation.
In this vein, the “because X” expression recently celebrated by the American Dialect Society as the word of 2013 is just more of the same. “ ‘Five Second Rule’ May Be Real, Because Science,” a blogger noted recently. The usage has a specific meaning, implying a wariness toward claims of scientific backing that all readers presumably understand when, in this case, it comes to whether we can actually always feel safe eating food off the floor. We consider the views of others, we step outside of our own heads. “Because X” is another new way to say “we’re all in this together.”
The increase in public profanity may seem to speak against such a sunny perspective. But what qualifies as profanity? Today, the “four letter” words traditionally termed profanity in American English are more properly just salty. As late as 1920, the lowlier word for excrement rarely appeared in print; its use has increased a hundredfold since. The uses of “damn” and “hell” in print are higher than ever in written history. No anthropologist observing our society would recognize words used so freely in public language as profanity.
At the same time, consider the words we now consider truly taboo, that we enshroud with a near-religious air of sinfulness. They are, overwhelmingly, epithets aimed at groups.
Gone are the days when our main lexical taboos concerned religion — with “egad” as a way to evade saying “Ye Gods!” — or sex and the body, as when Americans started saying white and dark meat to avoid mentioning breasts and limbs.
Instead, today the abusive use of the N-word, the word beginning with F that refers to homosexual men and a four-letter word for a body part that can be used to refer to women are considered beyond the pale even in casual discourse, to an extent that would baffle a time traveler from as recently as 50 years ago.
A keystone of education is to foster awareness of, and respect for, diversities of opinion. Changes in language suggest that the general populace has become much more attuned to this kind of diversity. The increasingly wide and diverse circles of acquaintance Americans are likely to have may increase attention to a certain conversational civility. Texting cries out for substitutes for facial expressions and intonations that cushion and nuance spoken conversation. The civil rights revolution hardly created a paradise, but its impact on what we consider appropriate language was revolutionary.
We may not speak with the butter-toned exchanges of the characters on “Downton Abbey,” but in substance our speech is in many ways more civilized.
We are taught to celebrate the idea that Inuit languages reveal a unique relationship to snow, or that the Russian language’s separate words for dark and light blue mean that a Russian sees blueberries and robin’s eggs as more vibrantly different in color than the rest of us do. Isn’t it welcome, then, that good old-fashioned American is saying something cool about us for once?