“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to this head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” - Nelson Mandela
My head was getting in the way of what’s dear to my heart, language. I’d been confronted with what some term as “millennial speak” and, honestly, it was driving me to the limits of my sanity. I came to the razor’s edge of said sanity recently when a coworker said that something had her “shook.” I had a mild flip out and asked if she meant that she was shaken, she replied, “Yes, she was shook.” Well, this sent me off on a Funk & Wagnalls-esque diatribe about verb tense, the destruction of the language and the need for clear communication. My fellow workers laughed at my old-fashioned views and sent me excerpts from the Urban Dictionary highlighting words like; “woke”, “lit” and “boujee”. I replied that I was not old-fashioned and that proper language was nothing to scoff at. Then I went home, bought a porch near a patch of lawn to sit on and yell at the neighbor kids to stay off it. I showed them.
But not really. Fact is … they showed me.
As I sat in my imaginary rocking chair on the porch of my mind, aiming my mental slingshot at those damn kids on their skateboards, I played the situation over in my head. “Don’t they understand the power of language,” I asked no one, “don’t they appreciate the brilliance of a language craftsman like … Shakespeare?” Then, the dawn broke, reality stepped in and slapped me across the face with a page of iambic pentameter … Shakespeare. Didn’t I understand the brilliance of Shakespeare? Had I forgotten that the Bard had given us 1700 common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together and devising words wholly original? Obviously, I had forgotten and at that moment, I was shook.
I imagined some Elizabethan era dad sitting at the dinner table as his kids start talking about the “advertising” they had seen for this new play. Dad gets more and more confused as talk turns to someone’s “eyeball” being poked out. Advertising, eyeball, what language are his children speaking? They laugh at him, tell him it’s the new language and it’s what’s fashionable. They leave him scratching his head, having no idea what fashionable means. Advertising, eyeball and fashionable are a few of the 1700 words Shakespeare introduced into our everyday patois.
Language, verbal as well as written communication, is ever evolving and sadly, ever dying as well. According to Ian Roberts, a Cambridge University linguist, there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world and half are seen as at high risk of dying out in the next century. But, fear not, that’s not a confirmed death sentence. Hebrew, a language that had not been spoken as a mother tongue in Israel since the second century CE, was revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda starting in October of 1881 and eventually returned as the national language of Israel. There’s always hope.
I relate this story because language, if not tended to, adapted, not cultivated, has the potential to disappear. When a language dies, stories are lost, cultures vanish and who a people are becomes a mystery. Israel, for some time, had lost its sense of identity.
The 1700 words that Shakespeare gave us allowed our language to progress and carry on to the modern day. Thinking of it this way, I’m now able to see how these additions to our language, brought about by millennials, are not the destruction of our language, eclipsing our “proper way of speaking” but rather they’re aiding in the potential for our stories, our unique forms of communication, our identity, to carry on into the future. I don’t honestly believe that English is in danger of disappearing but, why risk it by sitting on the porch and mocking the additions that are being brought to it by new generations? I’m talking to myself here and, maybe other language Luddites like myself. When you think about it, language is a gift we leave for our future selves and like cars, computers, airplanes, it needs to keep evolving for us to reap all its many benefits to the fullest potential.
So I had a choice; be a critic, rant against the exposure to changes in our language, making me a lonely, jaded, laughable madcap or, I could lower my guard, submerge myself in the excitement that potential linguistic growth offers, thereby avoiding the daily scuffle with my coworkers. Kind of a no-brainer. I’m willing to admit now that my thinking was flawed. Millennial speak is not an outbreak of stupidity but rather a way of vaulting us into a linguistically diverse future. I’m a champion of this new lexicon and I say this without even the slightest hint of sarcasm. I believe our linguistic future is lit. Okay, I’m still learning, go easy on the old man.
*Here’s a game. I put 16 words in the last paragraph that were given to us by Shakespeare. If you can find the 16 I put in there, leave your answer in the comments section and the first 5 with the correct answer will get a Thoughtlab T-Shirt.*