Degrading the language?

John McWhorter, in the April 6th NYT Sunday Review, the piece ““Like, Degrading the Language? No Way”, in which John sounds a familiar theme for him, that novel usages and the change in old usages to new purposes and fresh sets of speakers is not decline, but shows an active drive towards greater expressiveness and nuance.

The beginning, with sampling of his arguments:

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.

More follows.

 

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