David Letterman once had a Top Ten list of ways in which the world would be different if it was run by supermodels, one of which was that the entire text of the US Constitution would be replaced by “Like, whatever.” In a sense, that projection is already happening. The meaning of words changes over time and new terms are added to dictionaries every year, while the use of emoticons and acronyms promoted by online culture (LOL, BRB, IIRC, etc.) is also creeping into our mental lexicons. Ordinary speech has been peppered with slang, colloquialisms, profanities, and idioms forever – ain’t it the truth? But sometimes it feels that more is being lost than gained, linguistically, and living in the midst of the linguistic evolution, or devolution, can be dislocating.
Seriously? Words and phrases usually reserved for print or refined adult speech can find their way into teenagers’ chatter? That’s awesome! There’s also the verbal shorthand which relies on single words to do the work once performed by entire sentences: Epic! Jeal-ous! Lame! Sick (as a compliment)! And let us not dwell too long on the origins of the putdown “sucks,” as in “That movie / event / person sucks.” Sucks what? Is there a particular act of sucking once associated with inferiority or weakness? Wait for it!
Watch any film from the 1930s or 40s and notice the dialect spoken by the urban hipsters of the era, like Jimmy Cagney, Bugs Bunny, or Mickey Rooney: “Say, what are you, a wise guy?” “Nothin’ doin’ – I’m goin’ places!” “Oh yeah? Who’s gonna make me, see?” It’s a grammar evocative of subway cars and chorus girls. Compare it with lines from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), and we are in a different world: “Oh, well, la-di-da.” “Did it achieve total heaviosity?” “It’s been nice talking to you, Duane, but I’m due back on planet earth.” The language has become more allusive, more premised on familiarity with the rhetoric of entertainment and performance. Fast-forward to any contemporary sitcom, and the byplay has become almost wholly ironic and referential: “Spoiler alert!” “I am so over that!” “Hello, I’m like sitting here!” “Well, duh!” Jimmy Cagney and Mickey Rooney would find it incomprehensible.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the state is actively reducing the number of words which citizens can intelligibly use, the better to control their minds. Eventually, inhabitants of Oceania will literally not have the language to utter any criticism of Big Brother. “A beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” says the Newspeak functionary Syme in Orwell’s novel. “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Today we don’t need Big Brother to shrink our inventory of nouns, verbs, and adjectives – we’re doing it for ourselves.
More and more, our popular catchphrases threaten to replace the formulations of original syntax. We speak to each other in a sort of folk jargon, mouthing an artificial argot we are barely aware is artificial. Perhaps intolerance is an eternal social problem – well, haters gonna hate. Perhaps most of our expressions are mere repetitions of ideas we consciously or unconsciously already know from elsewhere – yadda, yadda, yadda. Perhaps we are so immersed in the fake, the bland, and the familiar, that making moral or intellectual distinctions requires too much effort – like, whatever. It’s true that we can still convey meaning with words and inflections; people still communicate by talking, and sophisticated speech is still rich in vocabulary and grammatical dexterity. But common conversation, to my ears, sounds as if it has been pared down to a patois of received slogans and mental clichés, hardly conveying any meaning at all. Anyway, it is what it is. Just sayin’.
Postscript: For a book-length exploration of some of the ideas raised here, I’d strongly recommend John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. I don’t normally offer links to promote other authors, but this one’s well worth investigating.