English is an amazingly adaptive language. Without knowing it, any reasonably articulate speaker has within his or her vocabulary, hundreds of words that find their origin in languages many have never even heard of.
A brief sampling:
- Jaguar: From Guarani. one of major languages of Paraguay.
- Petunia, tapioca: From Tupi, a language group found in South America.
- Shaman: From Tungus, spoken by nomadic Mongolians in Eastern Siberia.
- Almanac, mattress, admiral: From Arabic.
- Zebra: From Kikongo, a language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and
- Atoll: From Maldivian, a tongue found in the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.
English is also an ever-changing language. Consider the number of slang terms we have used over past decades to describe something that is great:
"Keen," "far-out," "cool," "nifty," "bitchin," "outa' sight," "rad," "hip," "groovy," "bad," "gnarly," "neato-Keeno," "far-effing-out," "un-effing-believable," "super-duper," "slick," "stud," and the up-to-the-minute in-term, "the bomb." In order to be current with the language, of course, one had best not be heard to utter the word "bitchin," in 2006, lest they be considered a linguistic dinosaur -- or, even worse, a "nerd," "geek," "putz," "square," "toast," "wonk," or the youngest generation's current fav, a "homo."
Over the past several years, I've noted an alarming "dumbing-down" of the language used to such magnificent advantage by the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, Chandler, Ferber and Welty. How so? When was the last time you heard a complete sentence without the word "like?" How many times can we use "'ya know?" in a single verbal communication? What purpose do the delimiting "kinda" and "sorta" serve? And how often do we hear a sentence begin with the word "well . . .?"
Let's begin with the word well. Miss Collette, my fourth-grade English marm, used to keep a rather large wooden-handled bell on her desk. Anytime a student would begin a sentence with "Well . . .," she should pick up that bell and clang the offending student into embarrassed silence. Even after nearly a half-century, I can still hear Miss Collette's "Well-Bell" clanging in my ears. According to Miss Collette," beginning a sentence with "Well . . . , " told the listener that the speaker likely didn't have any idea of what he was going to say. "This is not the proper way that a lady or gentleman begins a sentence," she said matter of factly more than a thousand times. Hearing her clanging that "Well-Bell" was a sure-fire cure.
Let's move on to the two qualifying terms kinda' and sorta'. Whenever one uses either of these words in conversation, it means, essentially, that the speaker is not truly willing to commit to a declarative judgment. "How's that?" you ask. [At this point I'm stifling a natural urge to begin my explanation with "Well . . ."] Take, as an example the following: "I kinda' [or sorta'] think she's wrong." Kinda' think? Either you do or you don't think she's wrong. To preface the statement with kinda', makes whatever follows less than compelling; as if the speaker, not wishing to commit him or herself to an iron-clad opinion, has left the door open just a crack.
Next, we come to You know? The next time you hear an athlete interviewed, start counting the number of times he or she uses 'Ya know? I guarantee that you'll run out of fingers and toes before the interview reaches the half-way point. Again, we return to the late Mrs. Collette. Whenever one of her charges would utter 'Ya know?" she would hold up her hand like a school crossing guard and state flatly, "but I don't know." Over the course of time she convinced us that when one repeatedly uses the offending term, it betrayed a certain mindlessness on the part of the speaker. "Remember," she would say, "listeners want to know what you are telling them. If you've already decided in advance that they know what you're saying, it's probably better to remain quiet." Pretty good advice, 'ya know?
Lastly, we come to my number one linguistic bugbear: like. If you are ever of a mind to count the number of times a person uses like in a sentence or paragraph, you'd probably best have on loan the fingers and toes of your five best friends, because as sure as God made little green apples, you're going to hear it a couple of dozen times.
To my way of thinking, like has but two meanings: "similar to," and something in the neighborhood of "admire." Incorrect uses of the term abound: "She asked me to drive her to the mall, and I'm like really upset." "When he told me how much it would cost, I'm like 'are you kidding?'" "They're like, out of their minds," 'ya know?"
A corollary to like is the even more egregious I go. I haven't the faintest idea from whence this bastardization of the language comes. Often, we hear something like [used here in its proper sense], "He told me that he has two tickets at center court for tonight's game and I go 'you've gotta be kidding me." Or, "I asked her what she thinks of Senator Clinton, and she goes, 'I kinda' like her.'" Ugh!
I do admit to being somewhat of a linguistic snob and purist. For that I no doubt have Miss. Collette to either credit or blame. Nonetheless, it seems to me that with each passing year, we are sounding more and more like the late lamented Maynard G. Krebs.
As the Bard of Avon would have it, we should speak the language honorificabilitudinitatibus -- "with honorableness."