The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

Omg, wait, that was like, soooo awkward!

This is the epitome of prescriptivism.

Language is always evolving. Yeah, it’s annoying to hear people drop the words “like”, “wait”, “omg/Oh my God”, “awkward”, and “literally” in situations that don’t belong. But that doesn’t mean that they’re “wrong”. Language is alive, it’s an animal that changes and grows as long as the human race is still alive, and that we still communicate with each other.

You can’t stop linguistic change.

It’s probably the linguistics fanatic in me that’s talking. If I wasn’t an English major already or if I didn’t want to become a teacher, I would have majored or specialized in linguistics. It’s so interesting to see how language evolves, and why people speak the way they do, and why some dialects are shunned, and how languages are put on a pedestal and called “standard”, but treated really like royalty.

He talks about “like” as if using it as a discourse particle (ex. “um”, “uh”, or what we would call fillers) is a new trend, when it really isn’t. It has been used as far back as the 19th century, but for documentation purposes, it has been used in September 1928 in a New Yorker cartoon in the lines: “No, he got, like, a loft.”

Using as a quotative (ex. And I was like, “No way!”) didn’t have as deep roots as using it as a discourse particle. “Like” emerged into popularity as a quotative around the 70’s (give or take a decade), stemming from “to go” in the 40’s (ex. And she goes, “Totally”).

But I digress. My point is that, yes, it can be nerve-snappingly annoying to have someone use “literally” in a figurative sense, or in a sense where being figurative wouldn’t work (ex. “I was literally pumping gas into my car and then the raccoon fell from the roof”), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Semantics (meanings of words) evolve all the time, day to day. A very well-known example is the word “gay”, which used to mean “happy/joyful”. Now it connotes “homosexual”. “Pretty” used to mean “clever”, which is not something we typically associate with when we say a girl is pretty, or someone is a “pretty little thing”. And now, “pretty” can be used for emphasis as an adverb, such as “that was pretty good”.

And that leads me to talk about “literally”. The colloquial use of this world perhaps is not meant to denote the actual and physical occurrence of an event, but rather for emphasis. “That was literally the best day ever” may be used to emphasize the awesomeness that the speaker experienced in that day, and they may be reminiscing over it. Surely there is no figurative sense of the word “best”: it either is or isn’t.

I would debunk all the words that this prescriptivist Christopher Gurrie has so rudely smashed to bits, but that would take too long.

Although a fervent grammar person myself, I find that this article was completely ignorant of how language works. And to think he is the Director of Speech Communication scares me. Does he know how language lives and evolves in our lives? Language is not just words attached to things, and there are no set rules in stone. Even when we tend to violate the conventions such as “There is apples”, we understand that there is more than one apple being conveyed.

Grammar is not a historical document. There are no “laws” in grammar, it’s all about conventions, and conventions are set by people who have capital in society. Taking the prescriptivist approach and deeming all language evolution as demon spawn is ridiculous and impractical.

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10 comments on “Omg, wait, that was like, soooo awkward!

  1. Bob Gonzalez
    June 25, 2013

    There are interesting points in your response to Dr. Gurrie’s article. You certainly show your erudition in recounting the evolution of word meanings. It is obvious that language evolves and certainly styles of language are more or less apropos for distinct situations. Where you say there are no laws for grammar but only conventions, I would argue that conventions ARE the laws and where communication – that is, the convening of meaning – is important, it is beneficial to have a standard. To use an analogy from speech, more people can understand the dialect of a national news anchor than can understand someone speaking a regional dialect. (Combine the dialect with rapid-fire delivery and slurring and the words become mostly incomprehensible.) Slang slung in street speech is right for that “in” crowd but totally wrong when interviewing for a job working with the general public.

    Every realm of language has its power structure. Speaking the king’s English when confronted by street toughs may not be the best way to escape in one piece. Those toughs likely demonize “proper” speech as much as those who speak “properly” demonize street speech. Standard speech – by which I mean speech that the widest circle of speakers can understand – will evolve as new forms of expression enter and old forms of expression leave the general consciousness. Non-standard speech – speech only a relatively limited circle of speakers understand – will always be known as “colorful” – suited only to listeners/speakers who resonate with those colors. Standard speech may be bland and very “white bread,” but as a tool to directly communicate meaning, it is highly effective. It can also be rhetorically beautiful at the same time as widely understandable.

    I think the thing most annoying to me – and all of the fillers and “colorful” yet thoroughly inelegant skewing of language certainly do annoy me – is that intelligent people are so comfortable with letting the ignorant be in charge of changing the language. I don’t mind if the language evolves INTELLIGENTLY. I do mind that ignorant, unlettered, uneducated people who DO NOT love the language, who use it uncritically, with no respect, are mangling it to incomprehension while intelligent people stand on the sidelines and say, “How interesting.” So, if uneducated, willfully ignorant people get to stomp all over the conventions of grammar that allow words and ideas to resonate beautifully in the minds of educated, informed people, then those educated, informed people have a right to protest. I protest ignorant, uneducated speakers butchering the language, muddying it with fillers, repeating current catch-phrases ad nauseum. I champion speech that favors the thoughtfully chosen phrase and sentence over the banal blather that pours out of the indiscriminate minds of those who sop up whatever drivel is currently racing across the youtube-facebook-twitter-sphere.

    The rules, laws, and/or conventions of grammar do not restrict as much as they liberate and empower communication, just as lanes and stoplights on roads enable rather than hinder traffic flow.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      June 25, 2013

      I agree that grammar can be liberating, but like all things, it is only a tool. There’s a reason why “standard” is called “the standard”, and to cultivate a “standard”, dialects had to be suppressed and pushed down the hierarchy. Although it is true that the conventions of grammar help us all communicate a little smoother (not too hard to communicate when we’re all speaking one tongue), other dialects are being shunned because of the different prestiges attached to them. This leads to a purging from the standard speakers as an attempt to “cleanse” the “purity” of a language, which is ironic, because if there is no deviant, how do we know what the standard is?

      Moreover, yes, I completely agree with how the prestige of a language is arbitrary to its context. What’s standard in Newfoundland is certainly not standard here in Toronto. But I do wish that we can recognize more cultural dialects. And I don’t mean strictly Ebonics (where it can be beautiful even within a standard context), but also the multiple creoles that exist outside of cultural enclaves as well.

  2. Beau
    June 24, 2013

    OMG, I luv this article. That other guy’s article was, like, so ratchet. I literally crapped my pants when I read this I was LOL’ing so hard. Haha, OK not literally… awkward!!!

    Your point is somewhat valid, but for example (properly abbreviated e.g. for exempli gratia, not ex. – yes, I realize that directly contradicts your point), when has the meaning of a word evolved into its exact opposite meaning? As David Cross pointed out better than I could, “He literally ripped his head off!” is ridiculous.

    It’s fine to say their is no such thing as proper grammar as its constantly evolving, but that’s an absurd excuse for grammar that is nowhere close to what’s currently considered most accurate. Biological (human) evolution involves the most minute of steps, not long jumps. This bizarre form of relativism, ironically a popular philosophy among the generation in question, will only serve these buffoons poorly when they go on interviews or try and craft a coherent argument.

    Nice pair of articles (point/counterpoint) however. OMG, fragment!! Whatever.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      June 24, 2013

      Language evolves much faster than than biological evolution, obviously. As I have stated in my post, “pretty” used to be associated with bravery exemplified by knights, but now, it is being associated with physical attractiveness, especially for females, which indirectly associates with weakness (e.g. “What a pretty little thing”).

      There are many different words in English that have taken on opposite meanings because language is always used as a tool to counter, confirm, and debate certain ideologies.

      To speak of current times, “sick” and “inflammable” have taken on completely opposite meanings. “Nice” also used to mean “nitpicking and pedantic”. “Terrific” used to mean “frightening”, and “awful” is supposed to be “full of awe; inspiring”, not “disgusting”.

      You could have done a simple google search for this and lists and lists of words would have come up.

  3. Meg
    June 13, 2013

    Awesome piece. I too love language, linguistics, semantics. If I go for a Master’s degree it will be in Language Science. Thanks for sharing this, and your opinions!

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      June 13, 2013

      Linguistics is fascinating. :) Thank you for reading! I hope you do pursue your Master’s!

  4. larkycanuck
    June 6, 2013
  5. bluegrasspb
    June 6, 2013

    Grumpy,
    Great commentary. I’m a high school teacher myself, and there is constant tension between embracing my students’ colloquial language–which I do–and what I feel is the need to instruct them on the importance of code switching. There are times when, especially for minority students, it will behoove them to use “proper” English. Another challenge is addressing a lack of vocabulary. Many students read more than ever, but it’s reading digital texts, often of the slang/abbreviated variety, and I wonder how beneficial it is for them to spend so much time communicating in such an informal realm. Check this out if you get a chance: http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/reflections-is-grammar-worth-teaching/

  6. zeudytigre
    June 6, 2013

    Sharing a house with teenagers I catch myself picking up the language they use (e.g. they ‘ship’ people, awesome is a much overused descriptive). If I were to talk as they do amongst my friends then I would sound ridiculous. Each generation evolves their own favoured lexicon, some of which is not obvious to those who have gone before. I find this fascinating.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      June 6, 2013

      It IS fascinating! I find that my students sometimes talk like this too. Sometimes I don’t mind (I talk like this too when I’m overexcited), but if it’s every single sentence, then I do get annoyed. However, the guy who wrote the original article seems to be, like, a total grammarian.

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