I heard that conversation yesterday at a restaurant where I was having lunch. Two women sat together at a table talking on their cell phones. Presumably, they were talking not to each other but to people not at their table—though I wouldn’t like to bet on it.
The “awugh” (if I have spelled it correctly) was accompanied by a sort of dismissive gesture of the woman’s fork-holding hand and a shrugging forward as she leaned in to her salad to wait for the reply.
Now, we have all heard variants of this dialog. More examples: “And she goes, ‘No way’.”; “So I was all like, ‘You can’t do that’, and she goes, ‘I can do what I want’, and I was like, ‘Whatever.'”; etc.
I am not going to complain about the replacement of the perfectly good word said with all like and goes. Language, after all, evolves, and if the current trends in spoken English merely indicated swapping out one word for another, well, worse things have happened.
But it is not just a change in words that is occurring. For the women on the cell phone was not just relating what was said or what took place, she was acting it out. The person who said “So I was all like, ‘You can’t do that'” was not giving a description of past events, she was giving a performance of them.
Mimicry, once probably the dominant form of communication (it still is among bees), which had largely disappeared for about a century or so, has returned. There are, in linguistic circles, almost certainly precise terms and definitions for this form of information transfer, so I will readily admit that mimicry is not the best word, but it does capture a certain flavor of modern spoken language.
People are acting out past events instead of using words to describe them. For example, our cell-phone woman could have said, “I was exasperated by her pointless suggestion.” Our “going” friend might have said, “I tried to explain to her that her behavior was bordering on wholly self centered, but there was no convincing her.”
True, those examples are somewhat stilted, but they illustrate the point. It’s not that the word exasperated was unknown to cell-phone woman, but it somehow was unavailable to her when she was speaking; she could not or chose not to make use of it. And it is likely to be the case that replacements for exasperated, like galled or piqued and so forth, were unknown to her.
That is, I would bet that cell-phone women’s vocabulary was smaller than a woman’s of similar education and situation but who was more than thirty years older. Even if her vocabulary wasn’t smaller, having a large vocabulary does not imply the ability to employ the words in it. Expecting cell-phone women to put together a comprehensible sentence where she was forbidden to gesture or to use non-dictionary words, would be like expecting me to go into an art supply store and reproduce a Caravaggio. Everything I need to do it would be there, but I have no idea how to even get started.
The culprit or cause? My guess is the decline in reading books. Books give you both the vocabulary and lessons in the use of that vocabulary. The farther removed writing is from books—say in magazines, text messages, or blogs, where people nowadays do the vast bulk of their reading—the less artful or complex the writing is likely to be, and the smaller the vocabulary and the less interesting the spoken language will be from people who do not read books. There are always exceptions, of course, but on average I believe the claim holds.
Words are not going to disappear, but it will be interesting to see how far the trend towards acting and away from description spoken language becomes.
Caveats: I am sure that linguists, philologists, and sociologists have studied this phenomenon in depth, but I am unaware of their work. If somebody has references, please let me know.