How English Got Up Close and Personal
In his new book, ‘Words on the Move,’ John McWhorter delights in the fluidity of language, how it never stands still but flows and morphs like the living thing it is.
There’s a reason that it often requires an art history class to get a handle on medieval painting. It may be pretty in a general sense, but it’s hard not to notice that the people tend to exhibit only the broadest of emotions, if any—in much of medieval painting, the faces seem almost frozen blank.
It would never have occurred to a painter like Giotto to depict the full range of human expressions. The individualist focus that seems so natural to us was not yet a part of how one was taught to create art. Art was less about you, him, or her than about that: grander things such as religion and commemoration. We cherish the Mona Lisa as one of the heralds of the new era, with that smile we can imagine someone curling into near the middle of a good first date. And even that doesn’t compare with the japingly sarcastic glow on the face of the Cossack scribe penning an insulting letter to the Turkish sultan in Elias Repin’s most famous painting, Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan, of 1891. It’s lifelike in a fashion we’d never find in a Byzantine image.
This increasing focus on the individual is a theme in much of Western history. We can practically hear and smell Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, and Oscar Wao in a way that we never can any of the characters in The Iliad. To Plato and Aristotle, steeped in unquestioningly hierarchical ideologies, a political system guaranteeing all individuals “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” would have sounded like science fiction. Even the notion of a popular song “cover” is a sign of the times. To Cole Porter, it would have seemed alien to write a song for only one artist to sing, with anyone else required to wait about ten years to take a crack at it, and even then, have their effort classified as a salutary “version” of the first one. Today, a pop song is about one person expressing their one self.
Language, however, has always been ahead of the curve on individualism. Long before Rembrandt, Thomas Jefferson, or Adele, human language has always and forever been getting personal. Not in the sense of people having arguments, although of course that has been happening, too. Rather, one of the things that has always happened to a great many words is that they start out showing what we mean, but end up being used to show how we feel. This trajectory is as common as words getting shorter (I’d-a done it from I would have done it), cuter (horsey, brewsky), or nastier (hussy started as housewife). Just as often, a word nestles into a place in English that grammar mavens and quite a few others consider unsuitably vague, random, redundant, or as having no “real” meaning—the use of so at the start of a sentence is an example—when to a linguist the word in question is fulfilling a function as normal as marking past tense or making something plural.
This chapter will introduce you to something very old about language that, through no fault of our own, always seems new.
It’s a whole wing of language that one hears too little about, with our natural intuition that a word is something with a meaning corresponding to some easily specified thing, concept, action, or quality. Ah, there is so much more to what it is to communicate as a human being. There are certainly the vanilla sentences. Horses run fast: if a toddler asks us what that means, we could easily go word by word and nail the matter. But then, how about another perfectly plausible sentence: Well, horses run fast. Okay: horses, run, and fast are easy. But what about well? What does well mean, Mommy? Note, this is not the well that refers to excellence: you didn’t mean Expertly, horses run fast. This is that other little well, that you don’t even think about.
Why did you say well, Mommy? Tough, isn’t it? If we must, you use well that way to politely acknowledge a previous statement, usually before expressing some view counter to it. That is, you would say Well, horses run fast if someone had asked, out of genuine curiosity, why horses don’t seem to get eaten by wolves. The well would nod politely to the person’s ignorance on the topic before affording them the knowledge that horses run too fast to be caught by canines. With well you convey, of all things, a gracious attitude. To speak English is to know that subconsciously.
And when it’s that hard to specify or master what a particular word “means,” it’s a good sign that we’re in a different realm of language, where the tidy idea of nouns, verbs, adverbs, and conjunctions you learned in school doesn’t do much for you, and a Schoolhouse Rock! jingle would be frustratingly diagonal. “Conjunction Junction” and “A Noun Is a Person, Place, or Thing!” were delightfully instructive tunes, but it’s hard to imagine setting a melody to “Well implies discrepancy between a previous statement and what you wish to utter!” or at least one that would exactly catch on.
Why it would be hard to write a jingle about well is that it’s about not labeling and describing, but something more abstract and subjective: attitude. Well allows us to indicate our take on what we’re talking about; in this case, wanting to amend what someone has just said but without causing offense. Horse is objective; well is subjective. Horse is what you call something; well is about why you want to bring the horse up at all. Well is personal, and it is hardly alone: it is part of an aspect of language as central to being a person as naming things and saying what they do.
What is this realm of language called? I have held off because the term is one that seems almost designed to confuse. A more familiar concept is semantics: this refers to what words “mean” in the conventional sense. A horse is that magnificently peculiar animal; running is locomotion at a quick pace. However, when the issue is words used to indicate our attitude toward what we are saying, the topic is pragmatics. Ugh. We think of pragmatic as meaning “practical,” but if anything, it’s steak-and-potatoes semantics that seems practical compared to the subjectivity of a word like well in Well, horses run fast.
Linguists adopted the term pragmatism through its already abstractified usage by philosophers, referring to a school treating thought as not just mirroring reality in a passive way, but affording and mediating engagement with a surrounding environment in a more proactive, pragmatic way. Note the analogy between semantics, which is merely about naming and defining, and this other realm of language, which is about mediating emotionally between us and that which has been defined—in a practical, or pragmatic, fashion along the lines of the philosophical usage.
However, pragmatics is actually too broad a term for what I want to open up for you in this chapter. Getting our feelings in is only one part of what pragmatics entails. Pragmatics is also about what we want to call attention to (No, that sock, not this one!), what we want to leave in the background in order to get on to a new topic (Anyway, it’s over now and we need to start on the new one), initiating a new topic without seeming abrupt (So, I heard there’s a new way to peel garlic), and other things. Our concern is the personal, subjective wing of pragmatics, for which one term is modal, as in mood. In a sentence like Well, horses run fast, a word like well lends a note of personal orientation that often seems out of place in print statements, with a meaning so abstract that one almost wants to say it isn’t a “real word.” Our concern, then, is what linguists call modal pragmatic markers: we shall term them MPMs, but soon we’ll exchange that term for something more user-friendly. For now, the point is less the jargon than that having MPMs and generating new MPMs is a normal process in any language.
Any language is always dragging some words from the chipper, gingham-dress, schoolroom straightforwardness of semantics (Horses live on farms!) into the MPM maw: layered, loaded, smoking Dunhills in the courtyard. MPMs are evidence of a word that started as an ordinary one, but then got personal.
The Personal Pull
MPMs are an extreme manifestation of a general process. Throughout any language, words of all kinds are always going personal to a certain extent: the subjective exerts a gravity-style pull on words’ meanings. Example: must started out in the objective command sense: You must stand still. Later came an alternate meaning of must, as in (doorbell rings) That must be the Indian food. In saying that, we don’t mean “I demand that that be the Indian food,” but a more personal, subjective sense of mustness. You mean that within your mind and your sense of what is likely, logic requires that you must suppose that it’s the Indian food, rather than the mail or a neighbor. First was the command meaning, objective and focused outward. But over time words often turn inward and become more about you. “That” (in my mind) “must be the Indian food”: here is psychology. Must got personal. Other times, things get so personal that the original meaning vanishes entirely. Here’s some Tennyson (sorry): Lancelot’s admirer Elaine is asleep “Till rathe she rose, half-cheated in the thought.” Rathe? Angry, as in “wrathed,” maybe? No, actually: the word meant “quick” or, in this passage, “early.” Elaine is up early with things on her mind. Rathe meant “early,” so rather, in Old and into Middle English, meant “earlier.” But a meaning like that was ripe for going personal, as must did. It happens via what we could call meaning creep, by analogy with the term mission creep—bit by bit, new shades creep into what we consider the meaning of something to be, until one day the meaning has moved so far from the original one that it seems almost astounding.
What happened with rather is that something you’ve got going earlier or sooner is often something you like better. As such, if rather means “earlier,” then there’s an air about rather not only of sunrise, but of preferability. That is, to earlier English speakers, rather was as much about what you like better (something personal) as about the more concrete issue of what you do before you do something else. Today the relationship between the two meanings is clearer in sooner. In saying, “I’d sooner die than marry him,” you mean not that you’d prefer your death to precede your nuptials, but that you don’t want to marry the man in question. Over time, meaning creep of this kind can leave the original meaning in the dust, which is what happened with rather. Rather got so personal that its original meaning is now an archaism of the kind that throws us in reading Tennyson.
MPMs are what happens when this personal pull on words’ meanings goes so far that a word no longer has what we can easily process as a meaning at all (Well,… ), or has a meaning so divorced from the original that some mistake seems to have been made (the “teenager” usage of like).
In these cases, the word’s very essence has become an expression of personal feeling, rather than being the name of a person, place, thing, action, or trait. We need not think of MPMs as smokers, actually, but I think it’s safe to say they drink wine. They make the difference between the receptionist and the friend, between Siri and you. They bring language alive. Nor are MPMs usually as tough to specify as little well. They simply require us to expand our conception of what it is to “mean” something, especially since the fact that no one tells us about this side of language so often leads to misunderstandings about how people talk.
In putting a face on language, MPMs even lend themselves to a handy acronym, FACE, that allows us to explore how deeply this “secret” realm of language permeates our very beings. More specifically, the FACE schema gives us a sense of the perfectly ordinary place words have gone when, superficially, they seem to have gone off the rails because it’s hard to nail down what they “mean.” In English, MPMs can be classified according to four principal functions that they cluster around:
This likely seems a random set of distinctions. In fact, it constitutes quite a bit of what it is to actually talk—not speak or recite, but talk.
Factuality: For Real
The weather headline very cold weather next week is quite plausible, but really cold weather next week sounds like The Onion, despite the fact that the two sentences have the same literal meaning. Yet we can’t say that really is too slangy. Buttoned-up sorts say really all day long every day. There isn’t really a lake there; I’d really like to meet an ombudsman—these sentences are hardly candidates for the Urban Dictionary.
What makes really seem out of place in a headline is that it is fundamentally emotional: it’s too personal. We can sprinkle really all over a sentence to lend notes of personally backed insistence with an in-the-moment feel: Really, I didn’t even see the point of going outside when it was that hot; He wants to pay it in installments, but really, what’s point of dragging it out?; I’m just tired of the whole mess, really. Note that in all these cases, in reality would not convey the particular meaning that really does. The reason I’m just tired of the whole mess, in reality seems off is that really and in reality do not mean the same thing.
Really conveys a hand-on-the-heart testament, something individual in a way that in reality is not. In terms of the grand old Parts of Speech from our school days, really is often a kind of interjection. Formal language, as opposed to casual speech, is cooler, more objective, and thus really feels out of place in a news headline. “Really cold” would mean not only “very cold,” but, in addition, that the degree of cold moves you, to the extent that you feel driven to point it out. Really is about your gut feelings in a way that very is much less so. Really comes coated in modal sauce.
But where does that coating come from? Why doesn’t really simply mean “very” or “in reality”? Because some words get personal. Really is now so far from its origins in the word real that it doesn’t even sound like its parent anymore. It’s been uttered so often that it has melted into “rilly”—most of us realize the connection with real only as we learn to spell. Really is a tool: it less means something than does something. In peppering our casual speech with really, we give an ongoing kind of testament.
It’s part of the fact that actual speech happens between live persons with needs and expectations. Part of an unspoken social contract with other persons is basic sincerity; language, naturally, rejects that. With really we ritually highlight the factuality of what we are saying, rather than simply making it and leaving it there, a practice that the impersonality of print allows more easily. Really flags our sincerity. The analogy is with how we perform a basic courtesy toward those we see regularly via asking, “How are you?” The reason we would often be almost offended to receive an actual answer is that, like really, “How are you?” does, rather than means, something.
Really, then, is a paradigm example of the F in FACE, the Factuality flavor of modal marker. The story of really has two parts, like a movie and its sequel. In the first installment, really was one of many English words meaning “truth” that came to mean very—such as very itself, which came from the French word for true, vrai (verrai in the late thirteenth century). Very is the well-worn version of verily just as “rilly” is what happens to really with heavy use. Truly was another example, of course, with true having undergone the same transformation as verrai a couple of centuries earlier. Even farther back there had been others. In the poem “The Owl and the Nightingale” of around 1200, the Middle English trips you up just as you think you’re in good hands: Ich was in one sumere dale …” (“I was in a summer dale”) in one suthe digele hale. What? Digel was an original English word for “secret”; hale is “hall,” or, in a poetic sense, “space,” “place.” But suthe: the key to that one is perhaps clearer in the way it would later be spelled, sooth: it meant “truth,” captured today only in soothsayer.• But sooth had an extended meaning as—you guessed it—“truly,” or “very.” In one suthe digele hale meant “in a very secluded place.”
Very, true, and sooth show that when a word means “true” and it’s used a lot, you can almost predict that, over time, it will glide from meaning “truth” into meaning “very.” But the process can also go further than that, and that’s where really comes in. Very settled into serving as an objective word, of the kind learners get in textbooks early on. But the personal pull got a hold of really, such that it morphed beyond the very stage into a more personal (i.e., modal) place. When someone says it’s really cold, we think of them shivering under their coat, not a weather report. To say, Okay, really, what are we going to do? is to indicate one’s emotional commitment to getting down to cases. You show your FACE.
A language needs factual modal markers of this kind; in English, the roll of the dice chose really for the job. Elsewhere, other stuff fills in. On the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, best known elsewhere for its coffee, in one language called Seko Padang to say you’re full you say Kuboromo. But to say what you mean in English by “I’m really full!” you say Kuboromo-ko. That little ko—wouldn’t you know it’s called a veridical marker—does the job of really in English. The question is how a language will convey that nuance, not whether it will.
What happened to words like very, true, sooth, and real reveals that when a word means truth, we should expect that its meaning will eventually shift: what would be strange is if it didn’t. A word is something that goes, not sits, and the very meaning of truth is ripe for transformation into related concepts such as intensification and extremity, including the fate of really, which we might call an example of factuality maintenance.
Literally, then, is easy. It was originally one more variation on indicating truth—specifically exactness, as in “by the letter”: He took the advice literally; He meant it literally. But that can have been only a snapshot along a time line; there was never any question that literally was going to morph into other meanings. The only question was what kind. For one, literally quite predictably went beyond its original meaning into one where “by the letter” no longer makes sense except as a metaphor: We were literally the only ones there; We were literally on the brink of a depression. There are no letters involved in these statements, but literally means that the statement is true in a specific way—as in what we sometimes even refer to as “by the letter.”
A next step was for literally to go personal, on a mission less to specify than to vent. This is when we use literally to attest to the vividness of our personal sentiments amid plainly exaggerated, fantastical metaphors during animated storytelling, justifications, and the like. I was literally dying of thirst and she wouldn’t give me any water is not intended to mean that someone really was perishing, but that they truly were experiencing what that expression does connote, extreme thirst. I literally coined money—that is, I indeed was making quite a bit of money. Here is factuality again, flagging sincerity. The personal pull, ever present, had its eternal effect: like really, like literally.
Or not. Online comments sections overflow with declamations about the “misuse” of literally. The idea would seem to be that, for one, literally must not be extended into metaphorical usage beyond a certain minimal point. He took the advice literally is okay, because though oral advice does not properly have letters, we might take “letters” to refer to language in general. But at a sentence like Vice President Joseph Biden’s The country was literally on the brink of a depression, toleration stops, out of an objection that one cannot be on the brink of something “by the letter.” And then all hell breaks loose over the use of literally in sentences such as I was so sick, I was literally dying and she still expected me to come to work. The educator and lexicographer H. W. Fowler, in his grand guide to usage, groaned in 1926, “We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression ‘not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking,’ we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate.” The acidic satirist and journalist Ambrose Bierce in 1909 had declared similarly that “to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.” As I write, one can actually purchase a T-shirt emblazoned, Misuse of literally makes me figuratively insane.
But ultimately, in view of the fact that language inherently goes rather than sits, literally is that kid in sixth grade who became the one to make fun of for some random reason when, with another roll of the dice, many of his tormentors would have been equally ripe for torment and what everybody really deserved was to be left alone. More to the point, literally is that kid subjected to a bizarre accusation that he is remiss in refusing to talk and dress like his grandfather.
A first clue that we need a more realistic take on literally is that neither Bierce nor Fowler has been with us for quite some time. The person calling in to a radio show will complain about how people are using literally “lately” when, after all, Bierce and Fowler were writing when movies were silent. The nonliteral uses of literally are quite traditional, of all things. Literally had gone past meaning “by the letter” in any sense as early as the eighteenth century, when, for example, Francis Brooke wrote The History of Emily Montague (1769), which contains this sentence: “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.” One cannot feed among anything “by the letter.” Or, in 1806, when the philosopher David Hume wrote, “He had the singular fate of dying literally of hunger,” in his signature history of England, despite the fact that there are no letters via which to starve. Yet this was an authoritative and highly popular volume, more widely read at the time than Hume’s philosophical treatises, equivalent to modern histories by Simon Schama and Peter Ackroyd. The purely figurative usage is hardly novel, either: the sentence I literally coined money was written by Fanny Kemble in 1863. Kemble, a British stage actress, hardly considered herself a slangy sort of person.
Of course, some could object that just because people were doing it a long time ago doesn’t mean they were any more correct than we are. But a second clue about literally is a certain inconsistency in objections to its figurative usage. Fowler suggested practically as a substitute, but in its usage as “approximately,” practically has drifted into a near opposite to practical’s original meanings of “actual,” “realistic,” and “suitable,” has it not? Also, it’s easy to forget how far even the meanings of very and truly are from where they began. It all made my daughter very happy—try paraphrasing that with “in actuality,” the original meaning of verrai and truly. “It all made my daughter happy in actuality”? What—in comparison to her alternate happinesses in the fifth dimension? Or, where are the pedants opining that very’s original, and therefore “real,” meaning is verily, and that therefore to call something very small implies that something else could be unverily small?
Thus in some cases we have no problem with words’ meanings drifting quite a bit. Yet, finally, some might still object that the figurative is the direct opposite of “by the letter.” Surely there’s something particularly irregular about that? But in fact there isn’t, which is our third clue that hating on the new literally is like daring a lava lamp not to let its clump drift into “improper” configurations on the pain of being disconnected. If fast means “speedy,” then why can you hold fast and be fast asleep? And did it ever bother you? Dusting can be removing something (like dust) or laying it down (like fertilizer or paprika). No T-shirts about that. You seed a watermelon to get the seeds out, but when you seed the soil you’re putting the seeds in. You can bolt from a room (running fast) in which the chairs are bolted to the floor (stuck fast).
Examples go on and on—and notice they matter not a jot. They’re called contronyms, and the only reason nobody goes around with a shirt reading, against the misuse of fast to mean “rapid,” I sit steadfast, is that the bifurcation happened before there were people thinking of English words as held fast in dictionaries. The question is: do contronyms actually create ambiguity, or are they construed as possibly creating ambiguity via willful overanalysis? Asked to seed a watermelon, no one carefully removes the seeds from one watermelon and then inserts them into another one. Genuine ambiguity disturbs like a stray eyelash. I once had occasion to spend hours in a hospital where the nurses often referred to discharge. They usually meant the process of someone being given leave to depart the premises, but sometimes they meant the less savory orifice-related meaning of the word. In that context, the difference mattered, and I was repeatedly confused for a flicker as to which meaning they intended, including an odd ten seconds in which I sincerely thought one nurse was talking about something I’d best not dwell upon when she was actually talking about insurance papers to sign before leaving.
Who among us can say that the figurative use of literally occasions confusion of this kind? It never does—perfect, idiomatic comprehension thrives because context always makes clear which meaning is intended. Language is not self-standing orations howled into the ether; it is a vehicle for talking about life and emotions directly experienced, recalled, or predicted from moment to moment. Too often we are taught to think about language as if it were written sentences out of a Language Arts workbook. Walter Ong, in his magnificent book on the difference between oral and written uses of language, magnificently got across why this is a mistake:
Written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.
Few would have any argument with Ong here, and most might even see him as belaboring the obvious. However, if so, then equally obvious is that even contronyms create no cognitive dissonance. The richness of context keeps miscomprehension from even having a chance to begin.
In that light, the fact that literally can mean both itself and its opposite is—admit it—cool! The way literally now works is a quirky, chance development of the kind that makes one quietly proud to speak a language. It’s neat that fast can mean both fleet and sitting tight. I for one like that something can both weather away and also weather a storm, in one instance destroyed and in the other, holding fast. Or at least, I’d be hard-pressed to say it hurts anything. A perfectly reasonable (and in Hume’s charming spelling, “chearful”) perspective on literally is that we were watching to see where this word was going and—get this—it ended up meaning its own opposite!
Literally, then, is just one more factuality marker amid the FACEs of English. Words move; there are new factual markers aborning as I write. One of them is almost perfect: straight up, as in I straight up told her she had to move out. It has the personal, “I’m telling you” function of really and of the figurative literally, and given that factuality markers come from words referring to truth, it’s no surprise that this is exactly what straight up’s original meaning is: one can also mean it to say, essentially, I agree. Wouldn’t you know, true and tree developed from the same ancient word: Millennia ago, English speakers saw trustworthiness in the straight-up quality of trees. The rest was history, which has that famous way of repeating itself: today people are feeling the same trustworthiness in the expression straight up itself.
Acknowledgment: I Hear You
Thus speaking is about more than making tidy little observations about things and concepts, what they do, and what they’re like. Notice that the only humans who talk this way are toddlers, from whom it sounds cute—as in, less than mature. Running alongside the “blackboard” realm of language is another one, through which we communicate our feelings about what we’re saying not just with facial expressions and gestures, but with speech. With the factuality wing of the FACE apparatus, we prophylactically attest to sincerity. Something else we do as humans, rather than robots, is routinely acknowledge others’ state of mind. It is, fundamentally, a kind of politeness, although less overt than deliberately taught formulas such as saying “Please” and “Thank you.” And just as with factual markers like really and literally, a “parts of speech” view of language misses the true function of our Acknowledgment tools. These tools lurk in places you’d never suspect, of a kind that many con-sider suspicious indeed. Yet English wouldn’t be a human language without them.
An example is, of all things, the word totally, as used by young (and, increasingly, “younger”) people. He’s totally going to call you means neither “He is going to call you in a total fashion” nor even “He is actually going to call you.”
Anyone who uses totally in this way or hears it often will intuit that it has a more specific meaning than actually. He is actually going to call you would mean simply “It turns out that he will call, despite what you thought.” He’s totally going to call you is much more specific: it refers to feelings between you and the person you are talking to. He’s totally going to call you: you and I both know that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance, but in fact, the naysayers are wrong, and whoo-hoo, he is going to call!
Totally tracks and nods to the opinions of others with an air of warm fellow feeling. It’s no surprise that it has become entrenched enough to be clipped to the cheery Totes! (which surely does not mean “Completely!”). It’s totally gonna snow implies that someone said it wouldn’t, or that there would be only flurries, and also that you and the person you say this to are in some way in the same boat as to how that heavy snow is going to affect you. If someone in Chicago turned on the TV and caught the tail end of a newscast in which someone said, “It’s totally going to snow,” you know they would have tuned in to a local station, not a national show covering weather conditions across the nation. The totally wouldn’t “read” coherently from someone likely too far away to experience the snowstorm themselves, because totally is about shared sentiment: once again, what looks like slack-jawed devolution actually contains a degree of sophistication.
Here is where little well fits in, acknowledging what someone has said (i.e., what they think) while nicely venturing an additive or correction. Someone says, That Thomas the Train is cool, isn’t he? The proper response is Well, frankly, no—I find him rather strangely dull; I prefer the Powerpuff Girls. Note: one would not respond Frankly, no—I find him rather strangely dull; I prefer the Powerpuff Girls. The absence of well may seem a small distinction but isn’t; the well makes the difference between a normal exchange and a zinger, likely delivered in an old play or to be deliberately arch.
Acknowledgment also takes forms beyond what we typically think of as words. In language, it helps to think of word as an approximate notion. Quite often, a phrase of two or more words does what one word could easily do. Never mind!, for example, is two words technically, but the never is not meant literally. You aren’t warning someone to “never” think about something over time, but to not think about it right now, and mind, in the meaning of “attend to,” is actually close to archaic beyond a few expressions. We barely stop to think what the words in Never mind! actually mean—rather, Never mind! is in essence a single “word” in itself, such that we are not surprised to know that for the same concept, Russians use the one word nothing. Other examples include Forget about it (not accidentally spelled as the single word Fuhgeddaboudit in New Yorkese) and Long story short for “To make a long story short.”
Or, and stuff. Here is a shaggy bit of speech we associate with imprecision, but it can be seen another way. Again, it’s no novelty—English speakers turn up using it even in formal documents as far back as the 1620s, as in someone investigating a rather grisly prison and finding “six several Priests prisoners in several Chambers, and Altar, with all Furniture thereto belonging, with Church-Books and Stuff.”
Part of the joy of the novel Middlemarch is how you can almost smell the characters from nearly two centuries’ remove, and one of my favorite facets of that is that George Eliot has Dorothea Brooke’s dilettante uncle speak with an and that kind of thing tic: “Life isn’t cast in a mould—not cut out by rule and line and that sort of thing,” “You are not fond of show, a great establishment, balls, dinners, that kind of thing,” “I lunched there and saw Casaubon’s library, and that kind of thing.” This shows that there were people who used that expression in that way, so familiar to us now, even in the mid-nineteenth century, when Eliot wrote.
For Mr. Brooke, to be sure, that little expression ends up helping kill his political chances, as he retains it even when giving a public address and a heckler parrots it back at him. Few would classify and stuff or and that kind of thing as appropriate to formal speech, but the informal is not always incoherent. And stuff and its equivalents reflect a visit into other people’s heads, the assumption being that the things not being specified are known already, such that one need not take the time to elaborate. “You are not fond of show, a great establishment, balls, dinners, that kind of thing”—Brooke is envisioning a scene and assumes we, prompted by the basics, have approximately the same picture in our heads, with not only balls and dinners but certain kinds of dancing, clothing, manners, pit odor, faintings, and delusions. With and that kind of thing, Brooke is drawing upon an assumed common body of knowledge among the kinds of people he talks to most—the matter is intimate, personal.
Warm, even. Stuff like that there is another variant, and an old song of that title has the lyric “I want some huggin’ and some squeezin’ and some muggin’ and some teasin’ and some stuff like that there”—we all know what “stuff” the singer is referring to, especially in 1945, when a popular song could go only so far in specifying such things. There can be a cozy wink in it, vividly apparent in today’s robust vernacular variant ’n’ shit. Because it involves the word shit one might dismiss this simply as “profanity,” but that’s like calling a fire blazing in a living room hearth a high-temperature oxidation. Profane ’n’ shit may be, but it also summons shared knowledge. After all, a homefire isn’t just a chemical process; it’s cozy ’n’ shit. By that, do I mean that it is both comfortable and a kind of feces? No: I mean that it is cozy, with all the associations we have with coziness, many of which may challenge expression—it’s probably nighttime, you’re probably with someone you like, it’s a nice way to end a day, it has a gamy smell modern life usually doesn’t expose us much to, it might get one in mind for, say, stuff like that there. You don’t have to say all that; it’s all implied by ’n’ shit.
It is here, then, that you know fits in. It is one more acknowledgment marker, typical of what any living language needs, and predictable as the fate of a word know when acknowledgment markers are all about what the other person… knows. You know can sound like verbal litter, and indeed one can lean on it excessively to compensate for being unsure of what to say. However, to never use it would suggest an oddly self-directed communicator. To say you know is to take a quick trip into your interlocutor’s mind, this time in order to facilitate your presentation of a point by suggesting that the other person knew what you know all the time. One can even use it when that shared perspective seems unlikely: That bus is, you know, the last one for the night—in that even implying that the person knew what you know seems less pedantic than just laying the point out straight. As one linguist perfectly nailed you know, it lends a “pretense of shared knowledge that achieves intimacy”—i.e., we’re again in the FACE world. Note that he said “pretense,” just as another linguist who is great on you know put it that it is “presenting new information as if it were old information in order to improve its reception.”
You know is handy in showing that classifying all these words and expressions as acknowledgment markers is not some kind of special pleading for linguistic sloth. You know goes way back—if it’s lazy to say you know, then English speakers have been lazy since, say, Chaucer’s time, when he has his Canterbury Tales characters popping off with you knows and similar things, like thow woost, where woost is the old know verb, which otherwise spawned the wit in mother wit and use your wits. Emily in “The Knight’s Tale” says, I am, thow woost, yet of thy compaignye a mayde, and love huntynge and venerye, with thow woost as you know for the fourteenth century.
And it had been ever thus: Beowulf, that masterpiece in Old English, is a little weird in its very first word—since when does an epic poem begin with “What!”? Yet generations of scholars have internalized that first line Hwæt! We gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon … “What! We have heard of the fame of the spear-Danes’ people-kings …” Really, though? Did Old English speakers kick off a good tale by bleating “Whaat!” to quiet everybody down? Actually, no. Many translators have gotten by the awkwardness by using Lo! but even that doesn’t get across what that What actually meant. The original manuscripts have no punctuation; that was added later, by editors. In manuscript, the passage is simply HWÆT WE GARDENA IN GEARDAGUM. There is no indication that hwæt was an interjection kicking off the show, and from how hwæt is used throughout Old English documents in general, we can see that it actually translates best as roughly “So …” In the Beowulf opening, for example, it brought the listener or reader in, with an implication that the fame of the spear-Danes’ kings was familiar, reinforcing that it was something of which “we have heard.” Imagine: “So we’ve heard of the spear-Danes’ people-kings’ fame.” Hwæt, then, went into the audience’s mind: in Old English, what could be used as an acknowledgment marker.
A language has so many ways of doing things: conveying not just meaning but attitude, packing a concept into not just one word but two or three—or, even, expressing a concept in ways beyond words. Intonation, for instance, communicates so very much beyond broad emotions. Just as there is many a slip between a word’s original meaning and what it can come to mean—literally 1.0 and literally 2.0, or what meaning “so”—intonation can come to mean something other than what we’re trained to suppose.
Why, for example, do younger people seem to be asking questions when they’re making statements? So it was Day light Savings Time? And I forgot to set my clocks back? And so I got to school late and Anderson gave me extra homework? Those observations could seem more gracefully couched as declarations. Why are these people so unsure? To the extent that women have been documented to be more likely to use what has been called uptalk, we might read this as evidence that they lack conviction, and perhaps that uptalk is a linguistic response to sexist dismissal.
Tempting ideas, but actually what we’re seeing is that the meaning of an intonation can drift, via implication, just as the meaning of a word can. This includes questions. It’s interesting how often what we couch formally as questions are actually meant as statements. If we ask someone who is piling their omelette with pepper “How much pepper do you need?” we are not waiting for them to specify how much. We are stating something, and something quite specific: that the person is overdoing it—here, using too much pepper. Languages are full of wrinkles, and here is one, where the meaning clashes with the form. One way of calling someone out on some kind of excess is to phrase it in the form of that particular how question: How cold do you need it to be? (It’s now too cold), How many times do I have to tell you? (I’ve told you too many times as of now). Convention and context ensure that this confuses no one, which is why a language allows such things to creep in and settle.
Uptalk is another example of the question form used to convey declaration. If the uptalker is actually questioning anything, it is not the validity of her statement but whether the person listening understands or shares the same basis of knowledge and evaluations. However, in performing that question so often, she is not spastically seeking endless answers and validation despite already holding the privilege of being the one holding the conversational floor. In its use in uptalk, the questioning intonation has morphed into a passing gesture: it doesn’t mean; it does—namely, it ongoingly establishes that you and the other person are on the same page.
That’s a natural evolution from questioning, just as y’know is a natural evolution from the verb “to know.” In uptalk, questioning has become even more personal than it already is. In uptalking, you are acknowledging (Acknowledging) the interlocutor’s state of mind. In that, to uptalk is actually quite nice, in the grand scheme of things. Or, as certain people would put it, “Uptalk is nice?” Those comfortably dismissive of potshots against youthspeak might even put it as “Uptalk is totally nice.”
Counterexpectation: Much to My Surprise
To glean articulateness in sentences like those may feel a tad queer, but the sense of dislocation is worth it. To understand FACE is to see a great deal of language in a different, and less depressing, way. Just as geneticists are learning that ever more of what has been dismissed as “junk” DNA has purpose, a great deal of what feels like the trash in English is part of how the language gets basic work done.
When we use little even to indicate disapproval or surprise, for example, it becomes part of the Counterexpectational component of FACE. He didn’t even bring a present—i.e., despite that one expected he would. Counterexpectation isn’t something we learn in school as central to grammar: we learn about the future tense and predicates and objects. But languages quite eagerly corral words (and more) into conveying counterexpectation as well. It’s part of being human to sort out what’s everyday and what’s new, and a big part of communication is, after all, to remark upon what’s new.
Take actually, which became a counterexpectation marker instead of taking the factuality route that really took. Actually started, as we would expect, with its “dictionary” meaning “in reality.” But by the eighteenth century, speakers were also using it for a judgmental (i.e., personal) function. He actually killed the cat: note you can barely say that without making some kind of FACE.
But you never know how a language is going to convey the counterexpectation part of the FACE apparatus. There are any number of ways a language gets across the “Hey!” sentiment beyond its mere word for Hey. In English, profanity plays its role here, too, this time with the word ass. There is a big pot and there is a big-ass pot, there is a lame excuse and a lame-ass excuse. An initial temptation is to think this is simply a matter of profanity. However, that implies that leaving aside the fact that one of them is rude, big pot and big-ass pot have the same meaning. They don’t.
You can tell from really trying to imagine just any old adjective, any old time, quietly appended with -ass. Even in the most foulmouthed person you can imagine, notice how hard it is to imagine him saying, I saw a gray-ass squirrel. If you think about it, he’d say that only if he thought of squirrels of some other color as normal, such that the gray squirrel is a surprise. Gray-ass squirrel comes with a backstory:
“Where I come from, squirrels are black, but when I got here, I looked out the window and saw a gray-ass squirrel!” Gray-ass doesn’t mean simply “gray as uttered by a potty-mouth,” but “counterexpectationally gray.” This is why another possible intuition actually doesn’t go through, that big-ass means “really big” compared to just big, such that there might be a profane parallel grammar:
big big bigger big-ass biggest biggest
But to remark on the pot being “really big” implies, in itself, that there was an expectation that it would not be. Otherwise, the overlap between big-ass and just neutral bigger alone is actually quite partial. Willa is big, Wesley is bigger, and Brian is the biggest—in no parallel grammar could you recast this as “Willa is big, Wesley is big-ass, and Brian is the biggest.” And forget “You can yell, but I’ll yell loud-ass-(ly?)” (or “Air is light-ass than water”!).
Words change, and ass was assigned a mission. A good guess is that it started with big-ass, because in language as in so much else, things tend to start with the literal and drift into the abstract, and human beings can literally have large behinds: Then a big-ass fellow jumped in and settled it once and for all. However, yes, it would have been fellow rather than guy, dude, or bro, because the counterexpectational ass floated beyond anatomical plausibility as far back as 1919, when someone was documented as getting angry when a “silly ass barber shaved my neck.” All manner of -ass usages pop up well before 1950: an accent criticized as having “lousy broad-ass As,” and familiar-sounding locutions such as green-ass (corporals), poor-ass (southerners), and broke-ass (a waiter). In all these cases, the point is that the quality in question draws attention.*
In narrating, we are creating a little movie. We need to focus the camera or the lights on what we deem worthy of note. We don’t want to only show a waiter, but to remark that he was broke, since it isn’t considered the norm for someone who works to be broke. A real camera could zero in on his frayed cuffs or show him hitching a ride home: in a grand old film noir, the character would not be written as actually stating, “I lack funds.” Talking, we might designate the waiter as broke-ass: “He was working and all, but actually he didn’t have any money.”
The reconception of the derrière is but one of the odd ways you can see languages conveying life’s counterintuitive aspects. In Saramaccan, spoken in the rain forest of Surinam, there is a difference between “dried fish” and “dried-dried fish,” but it isn’t that the latter refers to hideously dessicated fish; nor is it some kind of baby talk. “Dried fish” is fish that is traditionally eaten dried, along the lines of what Westerners are usually most familiar with from northern European smoked fish or assorted Japanese snacks. “Dried-dried fish” would be fish of any kind accidentally left out in the sun, or deliberately dried out despite usually being served fresh: dry against expectation. Or, in a language of Nepal called Kham, to say, Hey, look, he took them!, you put it as “His taking of them, its existence!” I suspect if America spent a summer expressing surprise that way it would feel natural by around October, but I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, we’ll always have ass.
Easing: No Worries
The final component of FACE is Easing. Much of what we do when speaking is devoted to ensuring a basic comfort level, which is unsurprising given that many scholars have seen exactly this as a primary component of what it is to be polite.
The sheer amount of laughter in typical conversation, including not just guffaws but chuckles and little passing jokes, is counterintuitive under a view of speech as just “communication.” Human speech is a laughy-ass business: we prefer communication within an ongoing reassurance that there is no impending social threat, that everyone is on the same page. A person who never laughs or chuckles lacks charm; you’re never quite comfortable with such a person, and you suspect they don’t like you. Anthropologists even have a name for this decorative kind of laughter that you miss only when it isn’t there: Duchenne laughter. It follows that shared sense of humor is so often the spark and sustenance for a romantic relationship, the most intimate and therefore most potentially dangerous kind. “Why Paul and not Andrew? I don’t know… he made me laugh.” The core essence of laughter is as a jolly manifestation of amusement, but because the state of mutual laughter is inherently relaxing and bonding, in conversation laughter is less at something than for something. It has become a quiet but potent tool.
This easing function percolates into language itself, upon which the nature of texting’s abbreviation LOL ends up making perfect sense. Originally it meant “laughing out loud,” and was used to indicate that one was genuinely and directly amused by a comment. However, quickly LOL came to be sprinkled throughout text exchanges with a frequency far beyond anything that would make sense as amusement. A popular article floats the idea that LOL has no real meaning at all by exemplifying its usage in a wide range of sentences.
However, when people have a hard time assigning a “meaning” to something they nevertheless produce day in and day out, it’s a clue that we’re on to something in the pragmatic wing of language, where we have to get used to a different sense of what something means—namely, it’s where words do rather than “mean.” A goodly sampling of the sentences from the LOL article:
I like you. Im pretty sure everyone else figured that out before you lol
I dunno, just assuming? I wasn’t sure if you did lol but I guess I shouldn’t assume
They charged me again so it wont cancel for a while lol
Oh lol yea they charged me again but only for a month
No way lol it was just a question
That is different and now you know I actually like you and not just sex like lol
I feel like you think that’s a bad thing lol
Ahh ok—lol. I wanted to ask you if you would drive me to the airport : )
Nope, not for the next couple of weeks. Why, ya miss me??? lol
lol rude. Lol… not even… you miss me? (Sleepy?) Lol a lil bit Do u think its possible To fall in love at first Skype?! Lol Maybe lol
The LOLs in those passages are certainly prolific, but not devoid of function. All LOLs take the edge off. They buffer the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of, for example, burgeoning romance, as we sense from the content. The lols are typeset chuckles, of exactly the kind you can hear in vocal conversation.
LOL has morphed from something direct and broad into something more abstractly subjective than guffawing at a joke. “Laughing out loud” now applies to LOL only as an origin story; anyone who used LOL to signal actual laughter would now be misunderstood: it would be, quite simply, a mistake. Texting, as speech of a sort, needs modal particles, and develops them from promising materials. Just as genuinely now does the job that very once did in its verily period, today one uses other acronyms such as LMAO (“laughing my ass off”) to indicate actual laughter, because LOL has moved on.
More obviously, expressions such as I know, right?, which can sound like tics, are serving the same easing function, this time in terms of indicating agreement. To simply state that you agree over and over again would ease no one, suggesting perhaps an impending and unwelcome embrace. “I agree. I agree. I agree.” There needs to be a more easing way to communicate such a thing, and recurrent I know, right? serves the function, in that those words indicate agreement readably, but more obliquely.
As always, English is just being a language: easing markers are not traceable to something about being a modern American. When I was learning German, I recall a friend offering me a bite of an apple with Magst mal abbissen? Now, just Magst abbissen?—literally “Want to bite?”—would have been the textbook sentence, but there was that little word mal. I had learned it as meaning basically “time” or “one time,” but had never heard it used the way my friend did; it sounded like she was specifying that I was restricted to biting it only once, which seemed incommensurate with the gleam in her eye. But walking away, from the context I sensed that the mal was a way of minimizing, creating a comfort zone: Magst mal abbissen? means “Want to bite a little?” or, more idiomatically, “Wanna little bite?” It isn’t hard to imagine how “one time” came to mean “a little” or “just,” as in Just try it on. One learns mal in learning to speak the language as opposed to reading it. It’s a classic modal marker, in this case a softener; it eases. A word that means something as neutral as “time” ends up being a little personal tool to create an aura of coziness. Germans often use it where in English we might talk in a higher voice: you offer someone an apple without meaning to seem too pushy—quite possibly you will say Wanna bite? And if you are a person of a particular sort of sonic expressiveness, even just kind of squeak the melody of that sentence on a little grunty buzz: nnnhh? And when people say such things, note also the raised eyebrows.
Then we perform the easing function in ways beyond mere words, which predictably occasions considerable confusion. For example, for those whose speech repertoire includes an informal variety considerably different from the formal one, the very act of switching into that informal variety with a fellow speaker of it is a gesture of easing. To speak the vernacular, the “dialect,” the “just talking” kind of language, brings forward a shared identity as people who have the ability to speak in that way, and therefore creates a feeling of intimacy. The conversation becomes more comfortable just as it does with punctuations of laughter; it puts people at their ease.
In America, this is how Black English fits in, especially for more educated speakers. Black English began as a transformation of English by African slaves. They transformed English for two reasons. One: they learned the language working alongside indentured Irish, Scots-Irish, and lower-class British servants who spoke regional dialects of English rather than the standard. Two: adults don’t learn languages as completely as children, and so naturally these slaves shaved off some of the quirks of English here and there. Today, a great many black Americans have full access to Standard English, and speak it with ease. However, Black English survives for them nevertheless. What was the only reality for their distant ancestors has now become a way to express facets of their personhood: Black English is a way of getting personal.
Thus often today Black English is a vehicle of modal expression. More specifically, it is an easing—the way that one signals warm connection, group membership. Black English for such speakers is not something they would ever speak continuously the way a less-educated Bavarian might spend most of his life speaking Bavarian rather than High German. Scholars of Black English seek and prize recordings of anyone speaking full-blown Black English for minutes on end the way some cherish bootleg tapes of Springsteen or Dylan.
For most black Americans when talking to one another, in addition to the battery of pragmatic strategies all English speakers have at their disposal, switching into Black English is ever available as a supplement. The very act of the switch is, in itself, an expression of empathy analogous to LOL. Hence the common sentiment that in many of its renditions, Black English is more honest, warmer, realer—there is feeling in it. “There Isn’t Any Mountain High Enough” would never have made the charts; “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is the necessary title for a song intended to convey heartfelt affection. Feeling could be considered the very essence of what Black English is for, to most modern black Americans who use it. It is part of the FACE component of speech.
Yet it is because Black English is often today a matter of the pragmatic realm of speaking that the black American fluent in Black English, apprised that she “speaks a dialect,” is typically somewhat perplexed or even, due to the stigma attached to the dialect in some quarters, offended. Scholars see that stigma itself as responsible for the perplexity and ignorance. There is truth there, but the person who feels something off in the idea that they speak a “thing” called Black English is nevertheless onto something. The idea of a Rosetta Stone set for Ebonics seems silly for a reason: Black English does not feel like a discrete dialect of English in the way that Sicilian is a dialect of Italian (or, as analyzed by many, not even properly “Italian” at all). To most speakers, Black English feels like a repertoire one takes advantage of, a tool kit—“something you can dip into,” as it is often put. They’re right, and although they have no reason to put it this way, it’s because, for them, Black English is a pragmatic strategy.
For that reason, a great many of the grammatical traits documented as part of Black English are more FACE components (pragmatic) than vanilla semantic items familiar to all English speakers such as using -er to mark the comparative and -s to make something plural. We have seen the straight up factuality marker. The yo used before or after a sentence, as in Dat’s my jam, yo! (where jam refers to a popular song, not something to spread on bread), is an acknowledgment marker. Distinct from the Yo! used to call someone, this yo is uttered in a parenthetical way, and summons common feeling: Dat’s my jam, yo! translates roughly as “That is my favorite song, comrades!” with an assumption that it’s a lot of your friends’ favorite song, too—you wouldn’t say it if you happened to be into Scriabin, or some odd little song you knew was just a quirky personal favorite of yours. Or, when a black person says, She done growed up, he doesn’t simply mean “She grew up.” That done is used only when the observation is counterexpectational. She done growed up! conveys that you find it counterintuitive that the little girl you seem to have encountered just a couple of years ago is now driving a car.
And then, easing is the very use of the dialect at all. There are those who criticize Barack Obama for using elements of Black English when he addresses black audiences. They see the switch as fake, from someone they usually hear speaking Standard English. To understand Black English as a modal gesture clarifies the matter: Obama’s Black English is the texter’s LOL.
The FACE of Humanity
The FACE part of English, then, is what allows us to talk rather than speak. Its components are each expressions of a fundamental aspect of being human. The philosopher of language Paul Grice outlined a Cooperative Principle of conversation, long accepted as canonical, under which we subconsciously follow certain maxims in an exchange. One is a commitment to truth: “Do not say what you believe to be false.” Hence the reflex of underlining that one is sincere with factuality markers, driven also by another maxim that encourages one to be maximally informative—we want our interlocutors to know we’re giving them the real deal. Then, to be human is to have a theory of mind, understanding the states of mind of people other than ourselves. Hence the acknowledgment impulse, which in the larger sense grows out of the fact that conversation is fundamentally a co-operation, not two people taking turns expressing themselves individually. It is, as the language evolution theorist Michael Tomasello has noted, not a matter of me talking to you and you talking to me but us communicating with each other.
Counterexpectation attracts such attention when we talk because of the simple fact that language is all about subjects and predicates, where a sentence does not function just to identify something (Houseplant!) but to say something about it (That plant seems to have died). Whatever you say about something is presumably novel to some degree, justifying the effort required to talk about it and taking up someone’s time in sharing the observation with them. Even beyond the modal marker realm, much of language hinges on the difference between what is already known and what is new. The very difference between saying that guy over there and referring to him as he is that if you say he, then the person that he refers to is something already known. Counterexpectation, as in surprise, is merely a heightened manifestation of that basic new-old axis, where you highlight what you personally find to especially stand out against the expected.
Finally, easing is central to classic descriptions of how politeness works. To a large extent, politeness is a matter of making people comfortable, and key to that is taking things down a notch. The psychologist Roger Brown and the English literature scholar Albert Gilman classically described the transformation in accepted manners in Europe, where politeness came to allow ever more use of informal pronouns like the French tu rather than referring to single persons in the plural with words like vous, as if they were kings calling themselves “we.” The comfort of solidarity triumphed over the chilliness of hierarchy. Or despite a sense one might have that politeness is about formal practices such as standing up straight, saying “please,” and wearing proper attire, the linguist Robin Lakoff nailed that seeking degrees of informality is also a basic element in what it is to be polite.
The lesson from the FACE paradigm, however, is not only a matter of plugging assorted locutions into slots representing the human essence. The issue is, how do words end up in those slots? Clearly no one makes them up on the fly. Instead, words start out in what we think of as normal meanings, and then morph into ones that fit into FACE slots. It’s a regular process, one of the many normal fates of words. It can seem that what happens to words is either their sounds wear off—“Did you eat?” Becomes “Jeet?”—or they veer off into a semantic gutter, stuttered vaguely by people unconcerned with precision, such as how totally can sound and how LOL looks. However, the real story is richer, and we have seen the first part of it with FACE: one thing that has happened to words in all languages since there ever was language is that they have moved from objective to subjective. Rather starts as “early” and becomes “preferably,” or the process can go even further and yield a word that has no meaning other than conveying some facet of subjectivity we need to get across, often hard even to describe as a “meaning.” That’s you know, big-ass, LOL, and even the figurative literally that gets into so many people’s trash. These words do not encounter a semantic gutter; rather, they pass into the elegant and indispensable softness of pragmatic butter.
Let’s FACE It: Emoticons and the Fate of the Language
FACE makes sense of things, then. One last one: to understand that language has a modal component answers common questions as to whether emoticons are “taking over” written English, or whether it could be possible to write only in emoticons. Those questions are based on an assumption that emoticons are mere decorations upon a writing system that was complete without them. However, it wasn’t. Emoticons are not taking over, but filling a hole. They provide something that was missing from texting language at first: the pragmatic part.
Texting, in that it is casual, rapid, and vernacular, is executed via the physical process of writing, but is actually better described as a written kind of speech. As we have seen, speech differs from formal language in its being couched in personal feelings, eternally demonstrated alongside the more concrete communication of content. It was inevitable, then, that once texting became the staff of life for a generation, its users would quickly start developing ways of injecting texts with the warmth of humanity in a way that, for example, the formality of telexing or faxing did not encourage.
But of course, emoticons could no more constitute a language by themselves than we could speak exclusively modally with no actual content. Writing all in emoticons would largely be the equivalent of saying, Well, anyway I mean, totally, you know. To the extent that this sentence is at all plausible, it could be so only after previous sentences that had established actual content to refer to. Otherwise, it is clothes without a body, just as emoticons alone would be. Neither decorations, detritus, nor destructors, emoticons are—you knew this was coming—the faces of texting.
Part of why emoticons seem like add-ons rather than mix-ins is that they are drawings rather than writing in the proper sense. However, their equivalent in speech is actual words that are, in their way, faces. This chapter has been an attempt to show how central such words are to language as it actually is. No known language has ever lacked FACE-ial words like the new like, the new totally, and the new ass. German has its mal and many more, without which one is not truly speaking the language. Ask your Japanese friend what ne means: from the smiles, hesitations, and shrugs in the answer, you’ll know you’re in FACE land. The classicist who knows her Ancient Greek can talk your ear off about that language’s “particles” and how elusive their meanings are. Much of the problem is FACE fifth-century-Athens style: we don’t have living speakers to teach us what the nuances actually were by using the “particles” in live context.
When hearing people who are fluent in American Sign Language have a conversation among themselves, often they will slide into using some signs with their speech. On describing a political address, they might mention the candidate talking while making the sign for lying, to indicate how likely it was that the candidate was telling the truth. I moved to Los Angeles, someone will say, making the sign for “put down roots” while saying moved, adding a nuance that in speech alone would be conveyed vaguely with intonation, if at all. This, like so much else, is the manifestation of feelings ever pushing out from behind mere statements.
That’s what FACE is about. No language qualifies as a real one without it. Much of what occasions questions as to “What’s that all about?” in how people come to use words is ultimately a mere matter of language maintaining that which it could never do without. A language without FACE would be as discomfitingly incomplete as a human without a face—just as we would expect, given that languages express humanity.
From Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like Literally) by John McWhorter. Copyright © 2016 by John McWhorter. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and is the author of more than fifteen books, including The Language Hoax, The Power of Babel, and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He writes for TIME, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic, and his articles have also appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Daily Beast.