It’s easy to suppose that the way we talk to one another is steadily coarsening in our modern America. The grand old four-letter words seem to be used as punctuation. To many, younger people’s speech sounds messy and unconsidered, a kind of linguistic equivalent of bedhead. Twitter is full of perfectly normal people being recreationally nasty.
Yet in truth, when I listen to America talking in our times, I hear an encroaching sweetness, a flowering of deference. I know, I know — but hear (read) me out?
We are all familiar with uptalk, in which people intone statements the way they would questions. To older heads, this often sounds as if people are doing nothing but asking questions? — instead of just talking? — which to them can seem not only unconfident but also unintelligent (?).
But what has happened is that the question melody has extended its range into statements. People use the question melody as a way of asking whether another person is following their point. It’s as if they appended “You know what I mean?” to the end of the statement but it faded away, leaving only its question melody behind, like the Cheshire cat’s smile.
Uptalk, then, involves acknowledging the other person’s presence and marking their engagement and interest. It’s quite menschy, if you ask me. I remember the first time I heard a young woman doing uptalk one cloudy day in 1987 and thinking that as quirky as it sounded, she seemed too confident in what she was saying to be thought of as asking questions. She was just highly engaged with her friends.
The infamous usage of “like” is a similar story. It’s easy to hear nothing but hedging in it — “That was, like, not a great thing to do.” But a linguist can break (and has broken) the new “like” down into assorted usages beyond hedging. For example, if a guy says, “We looked in, and it was so crowded. And not just a few kids. There were, like, grandparents and cousins in there. We had to go somewhere else,” he isn’t hedging; he’s stressing his point. The function of “like” there is to imply, “You might think it was just some kids, but actually ….” He is thinking about the state of mind of his interlocutors as he speaks.
An English with uptalk and the new “like” indicate people attuned to one another, the electrical grid uniting them nicely lit up. This is integral to human language, despite the novelty of these particular constructions in English making them seem like mere slang. If you know people who speak Cantonese, ask them what the particle “bo” means that they stick on to the end of a sentence. They’ll say it’s how you tell people something with an implication of reminding them that you told them before or that they already knew it. If you know people who speak the Papuan language Marind — well, OK, you probably don’t, but if you did — they might tell you about a little prefix they use that signals your listeners to pay attention to something they currently are ignoring. Uptalk and “like” are just more of this kind of thing. They are part of what makes a language human, not to mention cool.
The softening also shows itself in quieter ways. Have you ever thought about how people ask you to “hop on the phone”? Why the hopping business? Because it’s a way of asking someone to engage in the intimacy and time requirements of a phone call, despite how most of us rely more on social media these days. “Let’s talk on the phone,” in today’s climate, sounds a tad pushy compared to “Let’s hop on the phone,” implying brevity and even a kind of perky joy in the endeavor.
The same intention is behind the fact that you would never depart an occasion saying, “I am leaving now,” except in anger. Rather, to be a normal person these days is to say that you are “heading out,” implying that it will be a gradual process, kind of like rowing a log across the river, even if you are about to step briskly into an elevator. Waiters say that they are going to “go ahead and” take your plate — implying, often against veracity, that you had already given the go-ahead. It softens things; it is, despite sounding like slang, a form of politeness.
A possible objection here is those four-letter words flying all over the place. I certainly use them more than my parents did, and most would consider me a reserved sort — and yet in this, I am not unusual for people my age. How much sweetness and light can we really see in an American English that allows into polite society people who use a certain F-word dozens of times a day?
But we need to change the lens here. It’s less that people use profanity more than that profanity is no longer as profane as it used to be. What people treated as truly bad words 100 years ago are now more realistically classified as salty. By my parents’ time, this was true of “damn” and “hell”; to dismiss something, they’d say “Oh, to hell with that,” even in front of kids. Today, though, my equivalent — and yes, sometimes in front of kids! — would involve that word that begins with “f.”
Yet our society most certainly does still have a class of genuinely profane words that are not bandied about casually by cardiganed folk: the ones we term slurs. The N-word, the one beginning with “f” referring to gay men and a word beginning with “c” that we will just let pass beyond mention are modern English’s taboo words. We treat them with the same horror that earlier Americans treated the four-letter ones.
So, way back when, “hell” was often written with hyphens. Today, we say “the N-word,” and the casual use of the other F-word by, for example, Eddie Murphy in “Delirious” would be all but unthinkable now, its usage having elicited widespread condemnation and even lost people jobs. It’s not that we’re more profane now: We just have different profanity.
And the efflorescence of civility in English continues. The new usage of gender-neutral “they” to refer to a specific person — “Melissa is watching a movie in the basement, and they want somebody to go down and give them a haircut” — addresses new self-conceptions regarding gender. The fact that people under about 25 now often use “they” this way with effortless fluency is yet another example of our language being increasingly considerate.
The overriding issue is politeness, which language is very much involved in fostering, along with the more basic-color functions of making statements, asking questions and giving commands. Most of us are familiar with the difference between “tu” and “vous” in French or “tú” and “usted” in Spanish. Japanese requires different pronouns, verbs and even prefixes and suffixes, depending on whom you are addressing and what your relationship to the person is. Javanese is so hierarchical that to master the whole language virtually requires learning three different ones, with the words different according to how much respect you are demonstrating.
Modern English does not do politeness as obviously as languages like those, but we speak a delightfully considerate language if you know where to listen for it — in informal language. Despite that we most readily associate politeness with the highfalutin, you can be 1) formal and polite (“My good man …”), 2) formal and rude (“Begone, ruffian!”), 3) informal and rude (“F …”) or, and this is where so much of the action is these days, 4) informal and polite (“Let’s hop on the phone”).
It’s almost as if English were trying to compensate for having lost the grand old difference between addressing someone as “thou” when from above (such as to a child), “you” when from below (such as to a duke) and toggling between the two with equals, depending on the tone you wanted. (Shakespeare could still do this.) If we can’t use “you” as a way of being polite, at least we can, like, “head out” (?).
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” forthcoming in October.
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