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One Nation, Divided By A Common Language

Our language seems to be evolving faster than ever before. What are the consequences?

One Nation, Divided By A Common Language
Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko, 1878 [Painting: via Wikipedia]

They don’t even make fucking adults anymore. These little privileged shits. Everybody’s a fucking pussy. You can’t say shit to anybody. You can’t even be a fucking human being anymore. You know what I’m saying? How are you supposed to be a human being?–Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) in Goliath

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Thanks to the internet, the American language seems to be exploding at an almost unclockable pace. Polyglot social media has exposed American English, with its historically promiscuous embrace of new idioms, to more digital pidgins, foreign words, microdialects, pictograms, neologisms, and cryptic symbols than any one language user can ever expect to brook. And yet anyone who so much as glances at Facebook picks this stuff up. Only six months ago, deplorables, #maga, bigly, Drumpf, and #notmypresident would have read as nonsense. Now they are the building blocks of public-square discourse—and often the cause for our deepening cultural and political divides.

When a language is radically disrupted at every level, from spelling to grammar to semantics, it can feel hard to just be a human being anymore, as words we use to convey insight, wit, and charisma become archaic, inaccurate, offensive, curdled, or actionable. A short survey of Fast Company staff millennials highlights how a number of now obsolete terms that just a few years ago were considered cutting edge have already been rendered passé: bae, on fleek, slay, #blessed, turnt, yas, and even basic (as one young linguist put it, “it’s basic to say basic now”). Compare this rapid-fire evolution to the prominence of the word “groovy”, which remained popular for years during the ’60s and ’70s.

In an illuminating study published in September in The Proceedings of the International Conference on Social Informatics, several linguists from Microsoft, Columbia University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology examined millions of North American tweets and tracked the spread of slang words like jawn, hella, and ctfuu (look ’em up). Using methods from epidemiology, they found that such coinages tore through populations like infectious diseases, with single and then multiple contacts occurring fast and furious in the close, unsanitary quarters of Twitter. Join a heap of snotty, fevered preschoolers—a useful analog for Twitter—and you’re going to wake up with strep. It’s hella inevitable.

Most adults, with English as a first language, know between 20,000 and 35,000 words, according to data released in 2013 by TestYourVocab.com, an independent research project. Kids who read regularly learn about 4.5 words per day. (By contrast, kids who rarely read learn about a word and a half daily.) It’s all downhill from there. By adulthood, we acquire about one new word daily, and in middle age, “vocabulary growth basically stops,” says the study. And yet that contracting brain is the one confronted these days by a language that is exploding: emoticons, emojis, bitmoji, memes, ascii, hashtags, at-handles, gifs, links, and text abbreviations, many of which engender fully formed dialects. Meanwhile, regional American dialects from across the country and from within different cultures are merging online, too. Hundreds of millions of us, at older ages, are being exposed to this exploding language as the population of the internet swells. Learning all of this—or any of it—is taxing. It’s intimidating. It’s infuriating. No wonder so many adults loathe (often out of proportion) the demands made on them by Twitterspeak. Whatever our politics, we’re being asked to recruit language-learning muscles that previous generations were allowed to let atrophy.

After all, it’s not just slang that is evolving. Take the decades-long transformation of “staff” to “team” to describe a collection of employees. It was a barely detectable change. For millennials, “staff” sounds creaky and hierarchical, and even a touch power-mad. The loss of “staff” puts a cognitive burden on a new boss. She must split her consciousness, endeavoring to act as one of a team, while at the same time assuming all the risk and responsibility of a CEO.

As the American lexicon expands and becomes more heterogeneous, so naturally do the opportunities to erect prohibitions on what can be said and written. America has no equivalent of the Academie Française, France’s Sanhedrin of French, which serves as a border police force against foreign words that might adulterate it. In a language with zero formal governance, a generalized anxiety now haunts many of its speakers—especially if they often “speak” on the internet.

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It’s not purely political correctness that contorts the language (after all, the PC debate rages in France, too), though it does promote inquiry, both healthy and neurotic, into words’ moral inflections by exposing people who botch even PC’s finest points to charges of bigotry. When PC’s goalposts seem to move—around the letters in LGBTQ, say—the frustration older language users often express is that their cognitive failure (to learn the new sequence) is being framed as a moral failure. And so they invent furious defenses to cover their shame over cognitive decline and show they’re not sinners, and the language leaps and curls on itself again. Take one of the most devilish trolling locutions online, one that’s a product both of political correctness and of its backlash: The word “racist” is lately used to stand in for the n-word.

On the internet, the language moves far faster than any single brain can metabolize it. Why should a man who grew up in a Midwestern town with a 20th-century idiom set be aware that calling a woman “bossy” is considered sexist speech? That is, until he calls a female tweeter “bossy,” and encounters the wrath of the feminist horde…

These situations play out in art, too: Faced with his vocabulary’s inadequacy, and his drunk mind’s inability to expand it, Billy McBride, the shabby hero of the television show Goliath, sulks into his scotch. The old words that used to win him laughs or dates or even lawsuits (he’s a litigator) now just seem to bug people. He can’t put a foot right. Can’t say shit to anybody.

This very complaint issues from all quarters of the culture. Some of the fancier complainers are hailed as heroes by all who love liberty. Take the brass at the University of Chicago, whose florid non-support of pussies last fall—the ones who need, as the school’s memo sneeringly put it, “so-called ‘trigger warnings,’”—is styled as a rigorous commitment to academic freedom. This 24-hour moral gym can be exhausting, and requires more linguistic confidence, finesse, and adaptability than most of us have. A cry of pain can be heard at all hours on Twitter: “I didn’t say that! I didn’t mean that! I’m a good person!” Sometimes only silence seems to count as compliance.

I recently wrestled over whether to try a word I hadn’t used before on Twitter—or just shut up and study its connotations more deeply first. The word was “cuck.” A devilish invention that only recently went prime-time, “cuck” is an epithet—with a handy proximity to more familiar obscenities—something like “cuckold.” I wanted to know more about how hard the word hits as an insult, but I wasn’t sure whether I could even use it in quotation marks (is that too precious?), as it’s in heavy rotation with right-wing trolls. “Cuck,” like a misuse of “transvestite” or dated language from hip-hop, could well set off negative social evaluations of my linguistic competency, the sine qua non of life on Twitter. As the study I mentioned earlier puts it, “In the case of linguistic markers intrinsic to social media, such as phonetic spellings and abbreviations, adopters risk negative social evaluations of their linguistic competency, as well as their cultural authenticity.”

Tentatively I asked my Twitter followers about “cuck,” hoping to blunt its power. I waited anxiously for a pile-on. But surprise: My grenade was a dud. As many people gallantly mansplained to me, “RW trolls” (another expression unknown to our grandmas), are the keepers of “cuck,” which may have begun on 4chan, and draws its special poison from a genre of racist porn. But if you can dismiss RW trolls, with their brutish idiom, as paid or clinically moronic, it’s evidently not hard to let the word roll off you like water off a cuck’s back. Greg Connors, a writer and copy editor at the Buffalo News, astutely pointed out that being called a cuck is “like being cursed at in a foreign language.” Right. Maybe it’s not “like” that; it is that.

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In any case, cuck is a crude word, and a common complaint about the internet is that it’s choked with obscenity. But it’s not simply locker-room talk—an idiom set every bit as high-handed as political correctness—that disorients American English. It’s tempting to say that the brutes are “coarsening” the language, and try to take that language “back” for some imagined time of high literacy. But American English, like American democracy, has always thrived to the extent that it registers every voice, the soprano and the bass, the silky and the coarse. It’s nothing unusual that our language is evolving–that is its very nature. What’s disruptive is the pace and scale at which it is currently occurring.

And so American English is metamorphosing in large part due to the breakneck rate of change in a symbolic order convulsed by digitization. This convulsion keeps even the most linguistically sensitive of us in awe. Even if you do well with pronoun skirmishes around trans identities, for example, your mind must occasionally perplex at newer conundra. When is “white nationalist” too soft, and is “white supremacist” the only phrase that contains enough condemnation? The crowd parsing of diction—now at fever pitch as media and social media alike run hard diagnostics on Trump’s every sphinxlike tweet, or even my or your more innocent postings—can be confounding. But it also invigorates the language by keeping speakers on their toes. We are far from complacent about our language, despite all the cultural stress and even personal trauma our debates can cause. We are literary critics, all of us, constantly scrutinizing the effects of our evolving words: The social effects, the emotional effects, and–perhaps most importantly as we brace for the inauguration–the political effects.