McWhorter returns to the mundane

August 27, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I think John McWhorter should write one column per week in the NYT instead of his contracted two, as the two-column gig just takes up too much time, and something’s gotta give. After his barnburner critique of performative anti-racism on Tuesday, McWhorter’s plumb worn himself out. Or so it appears from his much shorter piece today, which is on how spoken American has gotten more polite.

You can’t get this at the NYT yet, or by clicking on the screenshot, as it hasn’t yet appeared in the op-ed section, and you have to subscribe to see it anyway. Perhaps a judicious inquiry will yield the piece.

Of course McWhorter is a linguist, and this stuff is his bread and butter, but somehow I can’t get as juiced about contrarian linguistics as I can about McWhorter’s contrarian (for a black man) take on antiwokeness.. Ergo, I’ll be short.

McWhorter says that, contrary to our impressions, American language has not gotten rougher, with more frequent use of profanity, but in fact is becoming more polite. And politesse is, he says, one of the functions of language. When you take leave of a friend you don’t say “I am leaving now”, which is rude, but rather the gentler, “I’ll be heading out.”

To defend his thesis, McWhorter has to make some stretches. “Uptalking”, the irritating habit of ending a sentence with a rise in pitch, like a question, now becomes a form of checking to see if the other person is following you, “acknowledging the other person’s presence and marking their engagement and interest.” I wonder how we accomplished that before some people—no, not even most of them—adopted this annoying intonation. We did it by politely engaging in conversation.

And as for the reprehensible and nonstop insertion of “like” into every sentence, McWhorter also, like, likes that, too. He says, like, the word actually conveys different meanings depending on, like, how it’s used:

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 (and has broken) 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.

Well, “but also” would have conveyed the same meaning. Yes, language changes, and we’re not going to get rid of “like”, much beloved of the younger folks (although notice that you don’t hear it on the evening news). But how many of us have heard a conversation between two young people in which almost every other word is “like”? And no, not every use of that word has a different meaning, or even a meaning.

As for curse words, which you hear increasingly in the movies or in prose (and I don’t mind that), those too show McWhorter that English is getting ever more polite.  Here’s how he justifies that:

A possible objection here is those four-letter words flying all over the place. I certainly use them more than my parents did, and most would consider me a reserved sort — and yet in this, I am not unusual for people my age. How much sweetness and light can we really see in an American English that allows into polite society people who use a certain F-word dozens of times a day?

But we need to change the lens here. It’s less that people use profanity more than that profanity is no longer as profane as it used to be. What people treated as truly bad words 100 years ago are now more realistically classified as salty. By my parents’ time, this was true of “damn” and “hell”; to dismiss something, they’d say “Oh, to hell with that,” even in front of kids. Today, though, my equivalent — and yes, sometimes in front of kids! — would involve that word that begins with “f.”

But I’m not sure what he means by saying that they’re used more often because “they’re not as profane as they used to be.” Perhaps they became less profane because they were used more often! After people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin broke the taboo by speaking the taboo words onstage, people realized that you could get away with using in public words previously reserved for private conversation.

I won’t go on; the piece is light, larded with claims about how phrases like “hop on the phone” and a waiter saying “I’m going to go ahead and take your plate” are harbingers of a new and kinder English, a “delightfully considerate language if you know where to listen for it—in informal language.”

Well perhaps McWhorter is right. After all, he’s a linguist and I’m not. But I’ll never get used to fifteen “likes” in a sentence, and I still think that uptalking is also a sign of insecurity. McWhorter most engages me when he’s in a hot passion about the follies of wokeness, not when highlighting the nuances of English. It’s his column, of course, and he’s perfectly entitled to write about his profession. But I bet he wasn’t hired by the NYT to talk about linguistics, at least linguistics unrelated to politics. And dare I say that he’s better when writing about politics and ideology than about language?

29 thoughts on “McWhorter returns to the mundane

    1. I remember being in middle school and hating how much everyone said it. My best friend and I decided to find a substitute to use instead. We settled on ‘it would be as if’ – which is rather a mouthful and ended up curbing our use of either phrase.

  1. Y’know and like are doing rather different things, and I’d expect the latter to show up a good deal more frequently than the former. Y’know is principally a hesitation filler; only a speaker who was making up the sentence one word at a time, with little or no idea where it was going to end up—i.e., what the actual though was they were trying to express—would use that many tokens of y’know in a sentence. I’ve never noticed like used that way; it has a range of uses, and some of them probably encourage multiple tokens. So Brian Joseph, in an excellent chapter in The Blackwell Handbook of Linguistics, notes that in the last couple of decades, like has largely replaced go as a report signal for direct speech:
    … and I go ‘Oh my God (1980) –> … and I’m like, ‘Oh my God’ (2021). It seems to be more general than go, though, since it’s frequent in contexts where the speaker is reporting his or her unspoken thought as well: … and I’m like ‘Oh yeah, tell me another. And it’s been reported to have a bunch of other discourse uses as well. So I’d expect it to show up a good deal more frequently in any given stretch of conversation, especially among younger speakers.

    1. I listen to my share of podcasts where all too often someone starts a sentence which by all appearances is a statement but the speaker throws in “right” with a question mark at the end. I interpret the “right” to mean and emphasize that the statement is so obviously and inescapably correct. But the speaker may also not infrequently be requiring the listener to validate the statement. In any event, I think the use of “right” is superfluous piffle.

      Re: “OMG,” Oh My God”: if one is a believer it seems that one is trivializing or disrespecting or blaspheming God. There’s no doubt not a few good Christians are of this unbreakable habit. What particularly bugs me is someone languishingly ululating, “OH . . . MY . . . GOD.” It strikes me as “performative” and self-absorbed and melodramatic. When I hear it and if it occurs to me, sometimes I myself ululate in response, “Oh My Zeus,” or “Oh my Odin” or some such locution, resulting in raised eyebrows. It just now occurs to me that I should respond by singing the first few words of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”: “OH (Lord) MY GOD!” Or maybe, “OH LORD MY ALLAH!” God and Allah are one and the same, eh?

  2. Another way to check to see that someone is listening to you is to evaluate what they say next, and then they evaluate what you say, and if you’re not careful, after a while you have a conversation.

    Now get off my lawn. Please?

  3. I’m not bothered by the use of “like” in most instances, especially when it’s in an informal conversation between two (or more) people who use it similarly and understand what they mean by it. I’m like, “if that’s how you want to talk and the people you talk with don’t mind, that’s your business.” And I’m a person who tries not even to split infinitives. For the most part, the fact that other people are speaking at all is far more irritating than anything specific about their speech patterns.

  4. Maybe with two essays a week, McWhorter figures it’s one for social commentary, one for philology.

    I kinda liked this piece; the part about cusses tracks points McWhorter made in his recent book Nine Nasty Words.

    There’s a type of “up talk” that’s more subtle than the annoying form most often associated with Valley Girls. I first encountered it in written form in Richard Price’s 1992 novel Clockers — it was the way the cops in his book spoke with each other, dropping a statement in question form into their conversations every so often as if to say “you with me so far?” (Price spent a lot of nights riding on patrol with narco cops researching his novel.)

    For my money, Price has the best ear for American dialogue in the game today — at least since Elmore Leonard headed off to The Big Sleep (if I may make bold to mash up Leonard with his hardboiled predecessor, Raymond Chandler).

  5. McWhorter missed a chance to discuss another word: “right,” which has become the new “like.” I like Chris Hayes and his MSNBC news show, “All In with Chris Hayes,” but, man, he has a “right” tic real bad. He inserts this “right” at the end of every third or fourth sentence. I see it as a cousin to “like.” If “like” is used to stress a point, “right” is used to mean “You’re following what I’m say, yes?”. Rachel Maddow does it too though not as much as Hayes. Anderson Cooper, over at CNN, never feels a need to interject a “like” into his sentences.

    1. Ol’ Anderson is as well-spoken as he is well-groomed. 🙂

      Never once seen that guy so much as in need of a haircut, even in the midst of a pandemic. Reckon Ms. Vanderbilt taught her boy well.

    2. “McWhorter missed a chance to discuss another word: “right,” which has become the new “like.”

      ^^^^ Agreed, yes. I’ve noticed this as well.

      Unfortunately Sam Harris has even succumbed. He used to speak, Hitchens-like, as he wrote.
      But now his speech is constantly peppered with “right.” I find it a bit off-putting.

    3. Ending an assertive sentences with a “right” seems almost identical to uptalking at the end, in the sense of insecurity that Jerry mentioned, though the tone of “right” has to be tentative/inquisitive.
      If the tone is combative, it’s the opposite.
      I don’t watch him, so don’t know Chris Hayes’ tone.
      Those talking heads on cable TV seem to mostly want to push their own opinion, resulting in shitty interviews, if I may be allowed to use one those impolitenesses. Rachel doesn’t when interviewing, so she does her haranguing solo, with most of which I agree.

      My wife and I now have three prominent Rachels in our lives, a great niece, Ms. Maddow, and the author Rachel Joyce, author of, e.g., “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”.

      1. Hayes never seems combative. And I do like the guy. Come to think of it, I think Hayes only does his “right” stuff, as it were, when he’s conversing with a guest. If you decide to check him out, wait for the first guest interview. I guarantee you will hear several “right”s before the interview is over.

        I may check out Rachel Joyce’s novel. I like the summary at Wikipedia.

      2. I don’t find “right” comes off well no matter how it’s phrased. The constant “right?” after making a point seems to have this undercurrent context of forcing your tacit agreement to whatever they are arguing. It just feels sort of “pushy” when inserted along with someone making their case.
        Like “my point is so obvious I know you agree…right?…but I’m not actually eliciting your agreement, just making the point you really should be agreeing.”

        1. The tacit agreement and pushy angles hadn’t occurred to me. Those are fair. But I think Hayes and most other people use it as unthinking conversational spice. I doubt there’s any pushiness behind “right” for Hayes, but I do see how it can seem pushy.

      3. Bizarrely, WEIT reader Dom visited yesterday and gave my wife a book and I’ve just realised it’s by Rachel Joyce (her Miss Benson’s Beetle) – I hadn’t heard of her until I read this thread and didn’t notice the author’s name when Dom handed over the book.

  6. Even the much-feared “f-word” has lost much of its impact. Rather than being a coarse Saxonism for sex, it now seems a sort of universal expletive, lacking even a consistent grammatic position. Adding a slightly Gaelic cast for the linguistically fragile, I propose a tragic contemporary lamentation:
    My fookin ignition switch fookin died on me, and I had to fookin walk to the fookin Tesla dealer, but quel fook, they were fookin OUT of the fookin things, so fook, back to Amazon, what a timefook…”
    Nowhere is sex remotely involved here, and the deadly word has devolved to a sort of placeholder expressing First World grief. And consider that construct,” AF,” so universally beloved of aspirationally-burdened young women recently gifted with English degrees.. what does it even mean? “Extremely,” of course. That’s all it means!

    1. The various linguistic and grammatical aspects of “fuck” and other such words are discussed in McWhorter’s excellent and amusing Nine Nasty Words.

  7. About uptalking? Did you ever notice that young women do most of it? Far more than young men? So yes McWhorter, there is a flowering of deference, and that’s not a good thing.

    Our host writes:

    I still think that uptalking is also a sign of insecurity.

    This.

    1. Actually most studies show that men do as much “up talking” as women, if not more so. And the same studies show that it functions the way that McWhorter says it does and it’s not related to the speaker’s insecurity.

      1. Maybe my data is just old (like me). This 2015 study found “The null results for gender are particularly surprising because they run contrary to many of the previous studies on uptalk, which found that women use uptalk more than men.” Another 2013 study found that women Jeopardy! contestants used uptalk more, but more importantly perhaps, used it differently.

  8. I can’t stand the “like” which is usually used as an emphasizer. Some years ago I clocked my niece at 10+ “likes” a minute and explained how it makes her look like an idiot or airhead (particularly from a young woman).
    She agreed to let me raise my hand all our afternoon together every time she said it. She explained later she didn’t even realize she did it so much and, I’m pleased to say, actually cut back in, like, future.
    D.A.
    NYC

  9. Speaking of four letter words-I use Dragon dictation software and it seems to be programmed to refuse to accept any such words, even the mildest ones. Trying to train it to do so also seems to be virtually impossible. Extremely inconvenient

  10. I wonder why descriptivist linguists are so over the moon with the sort of language they wouldn’t be caught dead speaking or writing in their own conversation or prose. Ivory tower guilt manifesting as misplaced populism?

    Language might change, but I bet someone could compile a list of words and usages that were widely used—and criticized—at the time but DIDN’T permanently change the language. We don’t have to roll over for every slovenly use of English because it will supposedly become permanent. If enough people complain change can happen. Language change can also be influenced by writers, artists, and people who care about language, not just the lowest common denominator.

    The English language is getting more “polite” because Americans have become more neurotic and insecure than ever, thanks to the dread of being found offensive. Additionally, increasing screen time, decreased reading time, and the rise of texting have made American English tediously ugly in its blandness.

    Even swearing longer has any charge, because swear words are no longer obscene and are tossed around with mind-numbing regularity. Nothing can be “salty” when salt is used on everything. Nowadays “shit” is synonymous with stuff and all its synonyms, while “fuck” and “fuckin'” are used to precede every word in the language. Overusing these words is like putting ketchup on everything you eat. I wish indigestion on all who do so!

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