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Say What You Like

“It was a coup... The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames”


What a difference a decade makes.

Back in 2011, political speechwriter Clark Whelton wrote of his dawning realization that a form of communication he called Vagueness was overtaking everyday spoken English. “Vagueness was not a campus fad…,” he wrote in a City Journal essay. “It was a coup. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames.”

His first awareness of the trend came in 1985 while conducting interviews for internships on Mayor Ed Koch’s speechwriting staff. The first applicant was a young NYU student who “spiked his replies so heavily with ‘like’ that I mentioned his frequent use of the word. He seemed confused by my comment and replied, ‘Well . . . like . . . yeah.’” The next three interviewees did the same, and Mr. Whelton was even more troubled to find a drop in the quality of the writing samples they submitted. After six tries, he finally found a student qualified for the position.   Then came 1986. As the interviews proceeded, it grew obvious that “like” had strengthened its grip on intern syntax….The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding “and stuff” at the end. Their writing samples were terrible. It took eight tries to find a promising intern.

In the spring of 1987 came the all-interrogative interview. I asked a candidate where she went to school. “Columbia?” she replied. Or asked. “And you’re majoring in . . .” “English?” All her answers sounded like questions. Several other students did the same thing, ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise. Something odd was happening. Was it guerrilla grammar? Had college kids fallen under the spell of some mad guru of verbal chaos? ….Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes — using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés — were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.

By autumn 1987, the job interviews revealed that “like” was no longer a mere slang usage. It had mutated from hip preposition into the verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today. Vagueness was on the march…. I was baffled by what seemed to be a reversion to the idioms of childhood. And yet intern candidates were not hesitant or uncomfortable about speaking elementary school dialects in a college-level job interview.

It was interesting, then, to find John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, arguing in a recent New York Times essay in defense of some of the very things that to Whelton heralded the slow-motion demise of coherent, clearly communicative English. Apart from his work at Columbia, McWhorter is a prominent black voice speaking out against what he terms “Third Wave Antiracism,” or, as the title of his forthcoming book calls it, “Woke Racism” — the idea that “racism is baked into the structure of society, so whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience.” So he’s no liberal squish prepared to bless whatever someone in society happens to pronounce newly normal.

He begins his piece, entitled “The Softening of American Conversation,” by conceding that to the minds of many, “the way we talk to one another is steadily coarsening in our modern America…. 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?”

He asserts, for example, that “uptalk,” the intoning of statements as if they were questions that Clark Whelton saw as an effort to “avoid saying anything definite,” is not that at all. Instead, Professor McWhorter says,

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.…

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… 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.

Frankly, I’m not at all convinced that people use uptalk and a heavy dose of “like” out of consideration for those with whom they’re conversing. That’s not either to say, of course, that everyone speaking in these ways is doing so consciously in order to avoid definitiveness. Many of them are simply indulging the basic human tendency to go unthinkingly with the herd, speaking and doing as others speak and do.

To the list of newfangled locutions that are perhaps related to a general slide toward Vagueness, I would add the conversational use of “I feel” in places once occupied by “I think.” This happens in contexts in which the speaker is clearly describing a thought he’s had but is inexplicably calling it a feeling, as in, “I feel as if Benny Friedman is a much better singer than he was even three years ago.” Even if the speaker’s point isn’t empirically demonstrable, it’s still based on cognition rather than emotion, and invoking the latter seems like a subconscious effort to avoid any need to be able to defend one’s opinion, which, after all, is just a feeling anyway. Then again, maybe I’m overthinking this, and letting my feeling about this particular turn of phrase get the better of me.

McWhorter notes other changes in language that he believes are quietly indicative of the softening of conversation he contends is taking place, and on these I feel — I think — he may be onto something. Nowadays, he writes,

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.

And on that upbeat note, I’ll just go ahead now and wish a gemar chasimah tovah and a gut gebentsht yahr to all.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 877. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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