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The ‘Degradation’ of the English Language

The other day, as I was reading for a course, and turned to the internet for help with understanding a concept, I happened upon a video about something the maker of the video called “the degradation of the English language.”

Intrigued (as I usually am when I hear prescriptivist language) by his initial statements, I continued watching, as he discussed uptalk, the use of the word “like,” and creaky voice in young speakers of American English. As you may be able to imagine, the tone of the video was less than friendly. As happens all too often with popular perceptions of language change, this man’s attitude was that people are ruining English as they introduce new ways of speaking – young (American) women in particular, he notes, use question intonation in statements, meaning they raise the pitch as they near the end of what they’re saying. For example, someone may say, So I was on the bus the other day, while sounding – to the mainstream American English speaker – like they are asking a question: So I was on the bus the other day? might be how you would write it out to get the effect. This way of speaking is usually referred to as ‘uptalk,’ and is a favorite among people who like to claim that English is somehow being cheapened or made to sound less coherent by the new ways of speaking that are being introduced by younger language users.

purity

The first thing that catches my attention when I hear people discussing language in this way is the idea that any given language is a set and rigid entity, something that should be unchanging and kept “pure” across generations of speakers. As I’ve discussed here, this is, at best, an inaccurate conception of language. Language only exists the way it is because of how people use it. If a significant portion of speakers begin to use the language differently, then that language system is redefined, in a way, and made into something new (we should also keep in mind that it is debatable whether a ‘language’ exists at all; but here I use it as a shorthand). This doesn’t just happen across very long periods of time: it happens every time someone opens their mouth.

Language users make the system work for them in terms of what most people would think of when they think of language: getting information from a speaker to a hearer. When you say I want ice cream, the person you’re talking to then knows something they didn’t know before. But let’s take a step back and question this for a moment. Why did you say that? Why would you tell someone this; that is, why is this information they need to know? In fact, when you say that you want ice cream, you’re not just saying that; underneath the surface, what you’re really saying is likely to be something like Take me to get some ice cream or Let’s go for some ice cream. You know this, even though it wasn’t communicated “on the surface.” Importantly, there are different types of meaning communicated in obvious and not so obvious ways when we speak.

What’s known as ‘question intonation’ (actually only used in yes-no questions) in English is a tool that can be used to mark meaning in a way separate from the words in a sentence. We can see this by looking at a language like Spanish, where oftentimes the only difference between a statement and a question is the intonation:

Fuiste al mercado.

¿Fuiste al mercado?

The first means You went to the market, while the second instead asks the question, Did you go to the market? Spanish shares statement and yes-no question intonations with English, and again, this is the only differentiator between these sentences. This shows that it isn’t only the words we say that carry meaning, but also how we say them.

Language Is a Tool

In fact, as mentioned above, this question intonation in English is only used for some questions; for example, if you ask Where did you go? you will notice that you don’t have the same rise in intonation at the end as in Did you go to the market? This is a clue that hints at the underlying nature of language: it is a tool that we use to communicate a range of information with others, and it has a vast number of pieces available for us to use to do so. What we call question intonation is not tethered to question marking – it’s something that has been chosen arbitrarily to attach meaning to, and this relationship is free to change over time. As a word-based example, take hussy. Meyerhoff (2006) gives the meaning of the word starting in the 16th century, showing how it has changed since then:

153017th Century18th Century
hussya mistress of
a household,
a thrifty woman
a (playfully) rude
term of addressing
a woman
a female of the
lower orders, of low
or improper behavior

Notice, first and foremost, that this term’s meaning became more negative over time. This is an important – and saddening – occurrence across languages: terms relating to women are much more likely to take on negative meanings, as compared to those relating to men. In fact, the association of uptalk with negative connotations regarding women is created within these same ‘gender hierarchies’ that ‘devalue women’s ways of speaking’ (Jaffe 2016). It is no coincidence that the man in the video first jumps to ‘insecurity’ or ‘uncertainty’ as an explanation for these young women’s behavior.

More to our point here, the meaning of this word has changed over time. Nothing in language stays the same; a language is a constantly evolving system. It is with this understanding that we can better appreciate the appearance of uptalk in the English language of the United States.

Perhaps the most interesting and disparaging thing the above-mentioned video says is what I mentioned: that this use seems to indicate that young women are insecure, and feel the need to check if what they’re saying is okay with their addressee, as if they needed some sort of social acceptance. The man also clearly associates this speech pattern with ‘Valley Girls,’ and it reveals a common misconception: that uptalk is only used in what is called ‘Valley Girl’ speech. In fact, it is found in Australian, New Zealand, and British English as well (Ritchart & Arvaniti 2014).

Given that language changes constantly, and that old resources can be recruited to convey new meanings, we can ask what an intonation associated with questions may convey:

  • An unfinished thought – questions are, by definition, not complete; they seek answers.
  • Seeking collaboration – Language is full of devices to involve others in what we are saying; after all, when we talk to someone, we typically want to involve them in some sort of exchange.
  • Checking for understanding – Guy and Vonwiller (1989) (cited in Fletcher, Grabe, and Warren [2005]) found that, in Australian English, uptalk ‘correlates with the semantic complexity of the text [used here to mean what is being said],’ and is used to check that the audience is following.

Along with these functions, Fletcher, Grabe, and Warren (2005) note that this intonation may serve to mark politeness in New Zealand English.

We can see that ‘insecurity’ is quite the jump to make when assessing someone’s use of an intonation associated with questions when making statements. It seems that less-negative analyses are more accurate and evidence-based.

“They’re ruining english!”

People of every generation feel that their language is being broken by the following generation. They worry that double negation is becoming more common (which is not a problem, as I discussed here), that people don’t pronounce their words right (often an issue with confusing writing and speaking), or that young speakers are ‘insecure’ (which, as we have now seen, is at best one of many explanations, and more likely, a ridiculous assumption about the character traits of every speaker who uses this intonation, in every situation). But the fact is, language changes constantly; it always has.

In some ways, this is obvious, and in others not so much. It should go without saying that we don’t speak Shakespeare’s English – but is this a bad thing? Has English been ‘degraded’ over the centuries? No; it has changed, the same way that English and all languages change in minute ways with every single thing a person says. Language has never been static, and we need to stop regarding it as such. Just as importantly, we need to stop assuming the worst in others, and instead see that these assumptions are just windows onto our own limited perspectives.

References

Fletcher, J., E. Grabe & P. Warren. 2005. Intonational variation in four dialects of English: the high rising tune. In Sun-Ah Jun (ed.), Prosodic Typology: The Phonology of Intonation and Phrasing. Oxford: OUP.

Guy, G. & J. Vonwiller. 1989. The high rise tones in Australian English. In P. Collins and D. Blair (eds.), Australian English. St Lucia: UQP, 21-33.

Jaffe, A. 2016. Indexicality, stance and fields in sociolinguistics. In N. Coupland (ed.), Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates. Cambridge, UK: CUP.

Meyerhoff, M. 2006. Introducing Sociolinguistics. New York: Routledge.

Ritchart, A. & A. Arvaniti. 2014. The form and use of uptalk in southern Californian English. Presentation given at the 7th Speech Prosody Conference, Dublin, Ireland.

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