A large dictionary open on a table in a library.

Does modern slang actually make English more polite?

Tonight’s video is “Hidden Miracles of the Natural World,” from TED 2014.

We live in a world of unseeable beauty, so subtle and delicate that it is imperceptible to the human eye. To bring this invisible world to light, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg bends the boundaries of time and space with high-speed cameras, time lapses and microscopes. At TED2014, he shares highlights from his latest project, a 3D film titled Mysteries of the Unseen World, which slows down, speeds up, and magnifies the astonishing wonders of nature.

I’m reminded of the wonderful documentary Microcosmos, which is worth a viewing as well.

When it comes to language, I’m more of a descriptivist (acknowledging and fascinated by the fluid, changing nature of our speech) than a prescriptivist (decrying the inevitable changes as language evolves), so I enjoyed this recent opinion piece from John McWhorter in the New York Times, “Like, Degrading the Language? No Way:”

IF there is one thing that unites Americans of all stripes, it is the belief that, whatever progress our country might be making, we are moving backward on language. Just look at the crusty discourse level of comments sections and the recreational choppiness of text messages and hit pop songs. However, amid what often seems like the slack-jawed devolution of a once-mighty language, we can find evidence for, of all things, a growing sophistication.

Yes, sophistication — even in the likes of, well, ‘like,’ used so prolifically by people under a certain age. We associate it with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration. ‘Like’ often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point. To say, ‘This is, like, the only way to make it work,’ is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypothetical-ness.

‘Like, the only way to do it’ operates on the same principle as other expressions, such as making a request with the phrasing, ‘If you could open the door …’ — hypothetical, when what you intend is quite concrete. ‘Like’ can seem somehow sloppier, but only because youth and novelty always have a way of seeming sloppy. What’s actually happening is that casual American speech is, in its ‘like’ fetish, more polite than it was before. Sooner than we know it, the people using ‘like’ this way will be on walkers, and all will be right with the world.

The use of ‘totally’ mines the same vein. ‘He’s totally going to call you’ does not mean ‘He is going to call you in a total fashion.’ It has a more specific meaning, although only handled subconsciously by speakers, as so much of language is. ‘He’s totally going to call you’ contains an implication: that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t. As with ‘like,’ ‘totally’ tracks and nods to the opinions of others. It’s totally civilized.

McWhorter goes on to defend words like “totally” and argues for an overall civility in our language, including changing uses of profanity and a decrease in acceptability of epithets. Thanks Dana Sayre for this link!

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Photo by Greeblie released under a Creative Commons license.