For all the sound and fury over Ebonics, America has missed the forest for the trees in the great language debate.
It’s not just young urban African-Americans who are using a non-standard form of English. Listen to a random sampling of twentysomethings and you could swear they speak a completely different language.
On the near side of the generational divide, English has been replaced by a curious shorthand that’s equal parts code and slang. Sentences have given way to odd sorts of sound that have lost the rich flavor of pure English.
Meanings are approximate, tenses ignored, vocabulary limited, terms unipurpose, and sentiment impossible to describe except at the extreme poles or in the widest of ranges.
When tongue-tied teenage troubadour Fiona Apple, a personification of “youthspeak,” performed the warm-up act at the Orpheum recently, her introduction to one song went something like this. “People say, like, all my songs are about pain and stuff, and I guess that’s true. This song is about, you know, the pain you feel when you like a cool guy, but he doesn’t want to ask you out or whatever.”
Or take another recent real-life example from the ski slopes, in which a University of Vermont coed in a casual chairlift conversation (skibonics?) responded to a question by an older alum about the remodeling of a former party dorm on the Burlington campus.
She: “It’s, like, I’d live there.”
He (somewhat quizzically): “So it’s popular?” She: “I mean, it’s not, like, gross.”
That construction is actually notable because litotes, the assertion of a premise by the negation of its opposite, is one of the new language’s few rhetorical tricks.
That and anapodoton, the strategic omission of a clause, seen frequently in the rejoinder, “As if,” which implies refusal or rejection of an idea, as in: “As if I would ever do that.”
Most common, of course, is anadiplosis - the repetition of a word or expression that ends one phrase or sentence at the beginning of the next - in the continual repetition of “like,” the protean term that serves as the carbon building block of youthspeak.
“Like” functions as emotional approximator (“It’s, like, so sad”), interrogatory introduction (“Like, why is the door open?”), and synonym for said - “I’m, like: whatever” - to name only three of its endlessly varying uses.
So subtle and insidious is the cultural penetration of this particular term that, for those under 50, it’s only the highly disciplined or highly dishonest speaker that won’t hear it occasionally creep into his or her own discourse.
All languages evolve, of course, and as a living, organic form of expression, youthspeak is no different. Thus among the vanguard, one of the most popular functions of “like” - as the colon that introduces a quote - may be growing obsolete.
“We have gone from a period when kids used to say, ‘I said’ and ‘he said,’ to ‘I go’ and ‘he goes,’ to ‘I’m like’ and ‘he’s like,’ and now I noticed that they just say, ‘And I’m:,’ ‘and he’s:”’ to introduce quotes, says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University.
Another defining characteristic of the language is its paucity of descriptive terms. “What I see is the repeated hackneyed use of ‘awesome,”’ says Tobe Berkovitz, professor of communication at Boston University. “‘Awesome’ is the all-purpose one-stop-shopping word that pretty much eliminates the need for any further verbal communication.”
On the opposite pole from awesome, the most common term seems to be “suck,” which, having entered illicit language several decades ago as a vulgar expression with obvious sexual overtones, has now made its way into the vernacular as an acceptable everyday term denoting disapproval, disaster, or a general state of wretchedness.
What’s more, it’s a hydra-headed trope.
“You used to say such and such sucks, but now it has also become an adjective - something is a real suck this or that,” says John Whitehead, a senior at Amherst Regional High School.
“It has also become a noun, as in ‘suckness or suckage,’ and people who are particularly odious are said to generate ‘a suckage field.”’ Given that richness at the extremes, it’s puzzling to search almost in vain for terms to indicate more subtle judgments or shadings of opinion.
The Vermont coed’s “not gross” is one midpoint measure of approval, and “cool” continues to cover a broad range of basic acceptability, while also indicating agreement or acquiescence.
Fascinating though this new usage certainly is, anyone who listens for long will find himself wondering if it doesn’t signal a decline of vocabulary, and perhaps even literacy. Certainly those on the front lines, the educators who teach writing and literature, think there has been a real diminution in language skills.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, a professor of humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says she and her colleagues in schools around the country have noticed a marked decline in those skills over the last 15 years.
“Everybody I know in the profession is just at wit’s end,” Wolff says. “Students can’t write clearly, and they in turn can’t think clearly, they can’t read a challenging text, they can’t make a cogent argument, and they can’t analyze a political speech.”
All of which worries Wolff immensely. “I keep saying to everyone who will listen that you can’t run a democracy with people who don’t know how to argue, don’t know how to think clearly, and don’t know how to express themselves,” she says.
Some, of course, say that one generation’s harrumphing about the sloppy skills of the next is a ritual as old as civilization. But E.D. Hirsch Jr., a leading advocate for rigorous, uniform, mastery-based education in America, rejects the notion that there’s nothing new to grouse about.
“There is a difference between the way old men talk and an actual precipitous decline in SAT scores,” Hirsch says. “There has been a decline in vocabulary, and the verbal SAT decline is the best documentary evidence. And a decline in vocabulary represents a decline in knowledge.”
Although the last several years have seen a very slight improvement in verbal scores, the overall trend since the mid-1960s has been a long slide in average SAT verbal score.
Scored the old way, that average dropped from 478 in 1963 to 445 in 1973 to a low of 422 in 1991, before bouncing back to 428 in 1995. On a “recentered” basis, the verbal average has declined from 530 in 1972 to 500 in 1990, before rising to 505 in 1996.
Educators say they struggle daily against the compromised communication skills of their students.
Why the decline? One suspect is familiar: television.
“The national language of American youth is television,” laments one professor. “It is a pretty good rule of thumb, when speaking to young people, to ask yourself, has this word been heard on TV in the last week? And if the answer is no, think twice before you use it.”
So what’s a person to do? As King Canute demonstrated, it’s all but impossible to reverse the tides. But given the importance of reading to vocabulary formation, it might be useful to recommend a good book to a youthspeaker of your acquaintance.
And by all means, learn the new tongue. It just may be the language of the future - and it never hurts to be bilingual.