Changing language

linguisticsI appreciate the good turn of a phrase, expressions of speech local to a region of the country, knowing the etymological origin of words, and many other things about language and dialogue. And if one lives long enough, one becomes witness to the changes that are ever ongoing. Lexicographers document our changing use of words even as the take on the exact opposite meanings over time – for example, the word “peruse.” Linguists study the domains  of phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics. Grammarians study the structural constraints of  clauses, phrases and words to describe the the ways we use natural language to communication. They helps us recognize the importance of commas – after all there is a difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” Commas save lives.While on a vacation visiting friends and hiking, my “coffee cup” of the week was inscribed with “I am silently correcting your grammar.” It was a gift to my friend, a life long speech therapist, part of whose role was helping kids with many things involving speech – including grammar. While chuckling about the inscription we lamented about the changing currents of language. When did a “commentator” become a “commentationer”? Which for the record, the latter is not in Merriam Webster. When did “well” and “good” become fluidly either adverbs or adjectives? And when did the “question melody” get extended to declarative sentences.

The question melody is a nice description used by John McWhorter, Harvard linguist, to describe the manner is which the tone of a sentence rises at the end to indicate a question – or least it used to be the verbal indicator of the grammatical question mark. Linguists refer to it as “uptalk”. It seems to have first appeared in the “valleyspeak” social dialect of the 1980s Southern California “valley girl”, a term initially used to describe any materialistic upper-middle-class young woman from the Los Angeles commuter communities of the San Fernando Valley.

In time, the question melody/uptalk vocalization made its way to declarative sentences. At first it was simply confusing… “were they asking a question?” That phase of my reception gave way to being annoyed and a little judgmental in grammatical/linguistic kinds of way. Eventually, like many things, one just gets used to it. After all there are other verbal clues to differentiate statement from question.

McWhorter offers that there is another, deeper current in the use of question melody. He recently wrote: “But what has happened is that the question melody has extended its range into statements. 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.” He notes that “uptalk” involves acknowledging the other person’s presence and marking their engagement and interest. In other words, what started as a teen phenomena of one local area has morphed into a speech pattern which McWhorter sees as a softening of American conversation. Softening? McWhoter’s article began “It’s easy to suppose that the way we talk to one another is steadily coarsening in our modern America. The grand old four-letter words seem to be used as punctuation. 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.” But the whole of his article points to a larger softening among the younger generation.

I hope McWhorter is correct in his linguistic assessment and that our “recreational nastiness” is a passing phase/fad that will go the way of “valleyspeak.” But even if he is not, I will enjoy his turn of a phrase – “leaving only its question melody behind, like the Cheshire cat’s smile.” Nice.

In the meantime mind your grammar, choose your words well, say what you mean, if your choice is valley girl/dude or mean girl/dude, choose the former, and in general take St. Paul’s advice: let your words be animated by the gifts of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

John McWhorter, “The Softening of American Conversation”, NY Times, August 27, 2021.

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