Regrettably, our language seems to be devolving much like our social mores have been. In our increasingly morally relativistic culture, our language is morphing, adapting, and redefining each day, with fewer and fewer absolutes, and increasing laxity and less and less conviction.
This is not a surprising development; for in many ways, our language and speech not only mirror, but also magnify what is occurring culturally. Psycholinguists argue inexorably about whether language reflects our perception of reality or helps create it. It appears empirically that they’re concomitant.
American linguist Arika Okrent, has said, “The job of the linguist, like that of the biologist or the botanist, is not to tell us how nature should behave, or what its creations should look like, but to describe those creations in all their messy glory and try to figure out what they can teach us about life, the world, and, especially in the case of linguistics, the workings of the human mind.” If that is correct, contemporary language reveals a vacuous, illogical, and slovenly collective human mind in this twenty-first century.
I have marveled for years at the unintelligible gibberish that passes for communication today. Kids use “like” every third word as if it means something, while in reality, it seems to represent little more than a mental vacuity that exists in the mind of the speaker who can muster nothing more substantive to fill their sentences and paragraphs with. The same seems to apply to the use of “you know,” as employed ad nauseam by people of seemingly equal mental acumen.
I used to tease my children’s friends when they’d say, “It’s, like, cold outside.” I’d respond with, “Good thing it’s just ‘like’ cold, instead of just plain cold, otherwise you may need a coat, or, like, something.”
I’ve not heard anyone on the contemporary cultural stage capture this concept quite as concisely as comedian Taylor Mali, who has a laconic monologue dedicated to the principle. Says Mali, “In case you haven’t realized, it’s become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about. Or that you believe in what you’re, like, saying. Invisible question marks, and parenthetical ‘you knows’ and ‘you know what I’m saying,’ have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions.”
He continues, “Declarative sentences, so called because they used to, like, declare things to be true, as opposed to other things that are so totally, you know, not. They’ve been infected by this tragically cool and totally hip interrogative tone, as if I’m saying, ‘Don’t think I’m a nerd just because I’ve like noticed this, okay. I have nothing invested in my own personal opinions, I’m just inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty.’”
Mali takes the concept to the next level, applying the linguistic vacuity to our relativistic society. He says, “What has happened to our conviction. Where are the limbs upon which we once walked. Have they been chopped down, like the rest of the rainforest, you know? Or do we have, like, nothing to say? Has society just become so filled with these conflicting feelings of nya nya, that we’ve just gotten to the point where we’re the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since, a long time ago?”
He concludes with a plea, “So I implore, you. I entreat you, and I challenge you, to speak with conviction. To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it. Because, contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, it is not enough these days to simply question authority. You’ve got to speak with it, too.”
This is perhaps not just symptomatic of American English and culture, for Terry Crowley in his book on historical linguistics observed, “It seems that in almost all societies, the attitudes that people have to language change is basically the same. People everywhere tend to say that the older form of a language is ‘better’ than the form that is being used today.”
Words are the communicative devices utilized by mankind to render meaning and common understanding to the mundane as well as the esoteric. Many of the words we use represent absolute concepts and principles, and cannot merely be redefined or altered in practical application without changing the absolute truths upon which they’re based. Words like truth, marriage, and liberty cannot simply be redefined by popular acclaim without vitiating the social conventions, legal institutions, and verities they represent. Otherwise, they become unintelligible gibberish, like the “you knows” and “likes” that are the bane of our contemporary communicative culture; meaningless, trifling, and relativistic.
Perhaps no truer words were uttered by Gore Vidal than, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too.” As with societal decadence, perhaps the only recourse for language purists is the heuristic “clinging” to absolutism; standing on linguistic and ethical solid ground while the rest of the world devolves to nihilistic relativism.
Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: greeblie (Creative Commons)