William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

“I was all, like—awugh.”

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.

23 Comments

  1. So where do you place gestures? They are certainly acts but are they a performance? I think so. I think story-telling is a performance and I find story-telling a useful way of understanding much of human communication. So isn’t all our conversation a performance to some degee? Hasn’t it always been?

    A common form here in the UK is, “So I turned round an’ I told her, I said … then she turned round and said to me…” My imagination always provokes a smile.

    Rich

  2. I believe that this is not new but has been practiced by the female part of our society for as long as I can remember (I am 57).
    I know that this will sound sexiest and certainly not politically correct but females are much more open about their emotions (touchy feely) this drives them to share the whole experience.
    I remember my mother doing this with her cohorts in the church woman’s group and at times with my father, and I have experienced my wife practicing this communication form.
    There is a slight difference in the two types of performance communication. The performance communication that my mother and her friends and also my wife practice does not substitute performance actions for words, it includes every word said by both parties as well as the accompanying performance drama. So if my wife’s conversation with (say my son) lasted 1 hour then her relating it to me will last 1+ hours, and in the telling I am made aware of the actual emotions and body posture of each participant.

    Al this bring to mind quote from Sgt. Joe Friday (of DRAGNET fame), “Just the facts ma’am!”

    Now I can only hope my wife never comes across this blog or my comments 🙂

  3. Bob T:
    Sexiest?
    “yeah but no but yeah but no but yeah but no but.”

  4. this is a test

  5. Cecil Adams at the Straight Bunk tackled something along these lines in this article:

    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2724/does-the-average-american-student-have-less-vocabulary-today-than-in-days-gone-by

    His conclusion?

    “The General Social Survey, conducted regularly among U.S. adults since 1972, includes a ten-question vocabulary test. Experts dispute the test’s validity; that said, the high scorers through 1990 (with 6.5 correct answers) were born around 1945, the low scorers (at 5.1) around 1975. Evidence of a sizable vocabulary loss? Hang on. First, the test words come from a list originally compiled in the 1920s. (This longer list has been published, but the subset of words actually used is secret.) Some have doubtless grown more rarefied over time; conversely, you get no credit for knowing words coined in the last 80 years.

    More important, it’s hard to separate the effects of age (i.e., the subject’s at the time of GSS testing), cohort (his or her birth year), and period (the year testing took place). What looks like a cohort effect – i.e., people born in 1945 know more words than people born in 1975 – may well be an age effect: We know that vocabulary knowledge peaks in middle or old age. Hence (goes the reasoning) the aging boomers of the 1945 birth cohort test better (for now) than the still-callow cohort of ’75. This seems to be supported by subsequent GSS stats: subjects born between 1969 and ’76 averaged 4.9 when tested at ages 18 to 20; others from these cohorts scored 5.9 a decade later.

    Researchers arguing for a cohort effect don’t automatically conclude worsening education is to blame. People who frequent school board meetings, showing less restraint, generally assume schools have gone to hell since that 1945 cohort passed through. Though belief in a bygone golden age of education is widespread, there’s little to support it: federal reading-assessment scores have held steady since the first test in 1969; an Indiana study from 1976 showed virtually no change in reading skills since 1945. (Not that this is anything for schools to crow about.)

    Admittedly, experts who see no cohort effect in the GSS data acknowledge some period effect – the later the vocabulary test is conducted, the lower the scores across all groups, if only slightly. Whatever it’s called, researchers variously attribute this small drop to less reading overall, the dumbing down of reading material, the demise of intelligent conversation, or the ascent of TV.

    But even if our vocabulary is dwindling, so what? English, having by some counts the largest vocabulary of any language, surely contains more words than we really need. We’d be no poorer if desuetude, for one, fell into a state of itself. “

    While I agree with Mr. Adams that there may not actually be anything terribly important going on as far as vocabularies go, I am far less sanguine about the possibility of it occurring. This has to do largely with the fact that I’m a fan of language and believe that one of English’s greatest strengths is its expansive vocabulary.

    Then again, where I say I’m “exact,” my fiancee would say I’m a raving pedant.

  6. Hey, subliminal wishful thinking on my part
    or
    further proof I am a sexist (yea, I believe in sexes – two of‘em male and female)
    or
    both

    “I am so mortified”, he exclaims as he turns a fine shade of embarrassment…….

    Just goes to show spell check does not an English major make. 🙂

  7. Briggs

    December 23, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Bob,

    You might be right, but I have heard similar conversations from men. Educated men in positions of authority, too.

    Ari,

    Great link, thanks. Again, however, the size of the vocabulary is one thing, using it another. It’s the later ability I claim has atrophied—in general. And besides of all the other difficulties with that GSS, is that the number of questions is pretty small.

    One thing is fairly certain: fewer people are reading books. This has to have some effect. Perhaps it is minimal or non-measurable, but my theory is at least plausible. Compare, for example, an essay or letter written by an average high school student today with that of fifty years ago. Sure, this is anecdotal evidence, but common enough that many of us have experienced it.

    I have an idea of a test—an imperfect test—for this if somebody has the money or time to conduct it. I think I’ll detail it in a separate post.

    Rich,

    Sure, I mentioned gestures. But what I’m talking about is a complete replacement of gesture for words, especially with regards to descriptions. Not necessarily, for example, with regards to quotations.

  8. To quote a character played by Samuel L. Jackson: “Nothing important was ever written with 2 thumbs.”

    One place where this phenomena is addressed, is the study of the American Language by H. L. Mencken. Although this was written before cell phones, IPODS, and so forth, Mencken presents some evidence/analysis that the process occurs anyway.

  9. I hadn’t noticed that it was just a female problem, but I am prepared toadmit that when I get together with some female friends I resort to face pulling, sound effects and gesticulation.

    Briggs,
    “Arnie rescues his daughter with the help of some female, Awwww”
    “Awwww”? Excellent word, I must remember to use it.

    When you speak of the fork hand,I take it you refer to the left hand as the knife occupies the right?

  10. Briggs

    December 23, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    Joy,

    In this case, the left hand held the cell phone, the right the fork. Isn’t that cute? Awwww.

  11. Joy,
    American table etiquette requires an elaborate ritual involving the knife and fork dance that involves swapping the position. The knife is in the right hand only while cutting. Then, we move the fork to the right hand to actually eat.

    This slows down eating, preventing us from rapidly shoveling food into our open pie holes. Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manner”) as decreed this elaborate ritual an advance relative to older forms of etiquette which were better designed to permit speed eating.

    That said, we seem to eat plenty despite performing the knife and fork dance. As Briggs is in NY, and the woman was not cutting food, the fork was likely in the right hand.

  12. Lucia:
    There’s only one form of etiquette when it comes to the fork, the rest are “bad habits:”
    As the fork is held in the left hand, It is not permitted to turn upwards in manner of a shovel. Only when there are approximately five peas left is one allowed to shovel with the fork, assisted by the knife. Food must be spiked as with the pitch fork example, and other morsels may be balanced on the back surface of the fork as well as between the food item and the point of entry of the prong of the fork.
    I know because I used to have to put my hand up and ask permission to shovel. This is especially difficult if you are totally blind, which I am lucky enough not to be. Strawberry shortcake used to be positively dangerous.
    Further information is available on ladylike banana eating and non-offensive apple chopping.

  13. Oh man, you two just reminded me of my time in Japan, listening to the Nihonjin slurp noodles.

    *SLUUUUUURP*

    I hated eating ramen with non-Western friends because of the awful cacophony of noises to which I was subjected. I don’t agree with Joy that there’s only one form of etiquette when it comes to fork use (I’m Merrikun, dagnabbit!), but it’s always fun reading these things.

    By the way, if you ever eat with Japanese, NEVER stick your chopsticks in the bowl of rice straight up and leave them there. Also, never pick up any bowls or plates in Korea. Friendly warning.

    —–

    Matt,

    Point taken. Interestingly, the Japanese have been complaining about the same thing now for as long as I’ve been studying Japanese (close to a decade, on and off.) The very interesting thing about Japan’s experience with electronica destroying language skills is that Japanese is, in many ways, even harder hit than English is.

    Japan has also,apparently seen a decline in book reading. Reading in general remains popular, but books are being replaced by manga and keitai-fare (manga are comics, keitai are mobiles.) It’s not uncommon to see grown working adults reading comics on their train ride home. To be fair, manga often cover much more interesting and difficult topics than Marvel or DC typically would, but Soseki it ain’t. One interesting issue is the fact that most manga typically eschew the use of complicated kanji (Chinese characters) or provide phonetic reading aids above kanji used. This is somewhat the equivalent of those middle school books that provide in-margin definitions of difficult words in “advanced” reading.

    The keitai effect is even more interesting, though. Japan, as you probably know, has a “cellphone culture.” The problem with cell phone communication, however, is clear: it’s generally based on abbreviations and not much more than brief clauses. Like word processors, cell phones “auto correct,” and provide users with easy access to kanji lists, bypassing any requirement for actually learning to read and write the umpteen thousands of characters on a regular basis. Unfortunately, Japanese is a language that requires frequent utilization at all levels if one desires any degree of mastery.

    In other words, Japan is gradually producing a population that will be unable to read, write, or speak as well as the previous generation. It’s almost guaranteed.

    So, I suppose we can all take solace in the fact that the Japanese will continue to follow our lead. Only this time, the victory will be Pyrrhic.

  14. The waggle-dance theory of bee communication was proposed by Karl von Frisch who subsequently was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his discoveries. However, that theory was disproved by Adrian Wenner of Cal Poly SLO through a clever series of experiments. Wenner proposed that bees are primarily recruited to pollen sources by odor. He also found numerous data frauds in Von Frish’s notes.

    For his efforts Wenner was castigated and ostracized from entomology. The waggle-dance theory lives on and is almost universally accepted, chiefly because people want to believe it. It is interesting to note that NO OTHER INSECTS communicate by gesture, although they all communicate by odor (pheromones). But bees are magic, apparently, or specially gifted in some mysterious way.

    It is also interesting how superstitions hang on in human society. There are some bubbles that just won’t burst.

  15. Briggs

    December 24, 2008 at 6:49 am

    Mike,

    I didn’t know anything about it, and it is fascinating. I read about the waggle-dance from the gorgeous The Biology of the Honey Bee by Mark Winston, who presents it convincingly.

    Do you have any links to this story? I’m very interested.

    UPDATE: I found this site.

  16. Eww! After reading this, I am so like… glad that people like… have no idea what my Chinese female friends and I are like… laughing at while having lunch together. Got to like… love it!

    Replace the word “like” with “umm” or “****ing” or “bloody (?)”. Please excuse my language. How else could I have figured out when to use the word “like”? It might be obvious to you, but it ain’t to me.

    Oh, chopsticks. My brothers and I had so much fun with chopsticks fights when we were kids. We had great table manners.

    All I know is that reading allows me to gain a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of the culture here.

  17. Adrian is a cool guy. A good scientist in that he uses logic and is not afraid of the truth. A modern day mini-Galileo, because he has dared to counter the orthodoxy.

    Speaking of the decline of language, there is one word I have heard used as a catch-all for nearly every other word there is. S**t can mean just about whatever you want it to, and express joy, sorrow, anger, remorse, or any other emotion.

  18. And Ari, your antiquotidian desuetude is heuristic, dude.

  19. Last night I was reading to my son (age 23) interesting excerpts of letters and diaries written by servicemen in World War I while they were serving in the Polar Bear Expedition (resource: http://polarbears.si.umich.edu/). My son was struck by the facility of language demonstrated by the soldiers, and could scarcely imagine his own peers churning out letters as literate.

    I will submit it is not just that general reading has declined, but the necessity of writing has declined. One of the Polar Bears, Robert Granville (1886-1964), writing to his niece, estimated that he averaged “about one letter a day.” Today, in order to contact loved ones (who might be halfway across the world) it is a small and inexpensive matter to pick up the telephone (or send an email). Such casual contact was either impossible or too expensive in times past, when letter writing took a great deal more of our collective leisure time.

    Another factor is how writing/use of language is taught in schools. My above-mentioned son had an elementary teacher with an “anything goes” approach to writing, and it took years to undo the damage this well-meaning, but misguided, educator had inflicted. Whenever someone ventured to correct his written work, his defense was that “teacher says” that his sloppy spelling and run-on sentences were acceptable, if not correct. If teachers don’t take the language seriously, how can students?

    PS to Ari: It is my understanding that in order to vote in Japan, that one must write out the name of the candidate one wishes to support. There is a built-in literacy test at the voting booth, one that even the cellphone-crazy young people must pass. Imagine should such a rule be introduced in the US!

  20. No Matter What Happens, Someone Will Blame Global Warming ?!?

    Global warming was blamed for everything from beasts gone wild to anorexic whales to the complete breakdown of human society this year — showing that no matter what it is and where it happens, scientists, explorers, politicians and those who track the Loch Ness Monster are comfortable scapegoating the weather.

    FOXNews.com takes a look back at 10 things that global warming allegedly caused — or will no doubt soon be responsible for — as reported in the news around the world in 2008.

    1. Cannibalism

    In April, media mogul Ted Turner told PBS’s Charlie Rose that global warming would make the world 8 degrees hotter in 30 or 40 years. “Civilization will have broken down. The few people left will be living in a failed state, like Somalia or Sudan, and living conditions will be intolerable,” he said.

    Turner blamed global warming on overpopulation, saying “too many people are using too much stuff.”

    Crops won’t grow and “most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals,” Turner said.

    2. The Death of the Loch Ness Monster

    In February, Scotland’s Daily Mirror reported that 85-year-old American Robert Rines would be giving up his quest for Scotland’s most famous underwater denizen.

    A World War II veteran, Rines has spent 37 years hunting for Nessie with sonar equipment. In 2008, “despite having hundreds of sonar contacts over the years, the trail has since gone cold and Rines believes that Nessie may be dead, a victim of global warming.”

    3. Beer Gets More Expensive

    In April, the Associated Press reported that global warming was going to hit beer drinkers in the wallet because the cost of barley would increase, driving up the price of a pint.

    Jim Salinger, a climate scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, said Australia would be particularly hard hit as droughts caused a decline in malting barley production in parts of New Zealand and Australia. “It will mean either there will be pubs without beer or the cost of beer will go up,” Salinger said at a beer brewer’s convention, the AP reported.

    4. Pythons Take Over America

    Giant Burmese pythons – big enough to eat alligators and deer in a single mouthful – will be capable of living in one-third of continental U.S. as global warming makes more of the country hospitable to the cold-blooded predators, according to an April report from USAToday.com.

    The U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the spread of “invasive snakes,” like the pythons, brought to the U.S. as pets. The Burmese pythons’ potential American habitat would expand by 2100, according to global warming models, the paper reported.

    “We were surprised by the map. It was bigger than we thought it was going to be,” says Gordon Rodda, zoologist and lead project researcher, told USAToday.com. “They are moving northward, there’s no question.”

    5. Kidney Stones

    A University of Texas study said global warming will cause an increase in kidney stones over the next 30 years, the Globe and Mail reported in July.

    Scientists predict that higher temperatures will lead to more dehydration and therefore to more kidney stones. “This will come and get you in your home,” said Dr. Tom Brikowski, lead researcher and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “It will make life just uncomfortable enough that maybe people will slow down and think what they’re doing to the climate.”

    6. Skinny Whales

    Japanese scientists, who have claimed that the country’s controversial whaling program is all in the name of science, said in August that if they hadn’t been going around killing whales, they never would have discovered that the creatures were significantly skinnier than whales killed in the late 1980s, the Guardian reported in August.

    The researchers said the study was the first evidence that global warming was harming whales by restricting their food supplies. As water warmed around the Antarctic Peninsula, the krill population shrank by 80 percent as sea ice declined, eliminating much of the preferred food of the minke whale.

    The whales studied had lost the same amount of blubber as they would have by starving for 36 days, but the global warming connection couldn’t be proven because no krill measurements are taken in different regions.

    7. Shark Attacks

    A surge in fatal shark attacks was the handiwork of global warming, according to a report in the Guardian in May.

    George Burgess of Florida University, a shark expert that maintains an attack database, told the Guardian that shark attacks were caused by human activity. “As the population continues to rise, so does the number of people in the water for recreation. And as long as we have an increase in human hours in the water, we will have an increase in shark bites,” he said.

    Shark attacks could also be the result of global warming and rising sea temperatures, the Guardian said. “You’ll find that some species will begin to appear in places they didn’t in the past with some regularity,” Burgess said.

    8. Black Hawk Down

    Although it happened in 1993, the crash of a U.S. military helicopter in Mogadishu that became the film “Black Hawk Down” was blamed on global warming by a Massachusetts congressman in 2008.

    “In Somalia back in 1993, climate change, according to 11 three- and four-star generals, resulted in a drought which led to famine,” Rep. Edward Markey told a group of students who had come to the Capitol to discuss global warming, according to CNSNews.com. “That famine translated to international aid we sent in to Somalia, which then led to the U.S. having to send in forces to separate all the groups that were fighting over the aid, which led to Black Hawk Down.”

    9. Frozen Penguin Babies

    Penguin babies, whose water-repellant feathers had not grown in yet, froze to death after torrential rains, National Geographic reported in July.

    “Many, many, many of them—thousands of them—were dying,” explorer Jon Bowermaster told National Geographic. Witnessing the mass penguin death “painted a clear and grim picture” of global warming.

    “It’s not just melting ice,” Bowermaster said. “It’s actually killing these cute little birds that are so popular in the movies.”

    10. Killer Stingray Invasion

    Global warming is going to drive killer stingrays, like the one that killed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, to the shores of Britain after a 5-foot -long marbled stingray was captured by fishermen, the Daily Mail reported in June.

    A single touch can zap a man with enough electricity to kill, the Mail said, and global warming is bringing the Mediterranean killers north.

    “Rising sea temperatures may well have brought an influx of warm water visitors,” sea life curator Alex Gerrard told the Mail. “Where there’s one electric ray, it’s quite likely that there are more.”
    http://hernadi-key.blogspot.com/2008/12/no-matter-what-happens-someone-will.html

  21. Personally I think (and scientific studies confirm this) that the average border collie has a larger vocabulary than most people on the street of the average city today.

  22. It doesn’t take much study to note how degraded our discourse has become in 100 years. It seem harder to find a cause. Perhaps this writer of the last century provides a clue.

    Text from: “Slips of Speech: A helpful book for everyone who aspires to correct the everyday errors of speaking and writing”, JOHN H. BECHTEL, The Penn Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901

    From Project Gutenburg. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext04/slpsp10.txt

    “The study of the proper arrangement and the most effective expression of our thoughts prompts us to think more accurately. So close is the connection between the thought and its expression that looseness of style in speaking and writing may nearly always be traced to indistinctness and feebleness in the grasp of the subject. No degree of polish in expression will compensate for inadequacy of knowledge. But with the fullest information upon any subject, there is still room for the highest exercise of judgment and good sense in the proper choice and arrangement of the thoughts, and of the words with which to express them.”

    Well, like, whatever…

    David

  23. Briggs

    December 25, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    David,

    Excellent link. Thanks very much! And Merry Christmas!

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