April 14, 2005

Linguistic Senescence

If you live to a moderate span, you will one day find that the world you’re living in is not the world you’re comfortable with, not the world whose rules and mores you know, not the world you and your generation made.

You will find that you don’t even know how people talk anymore. The colloquialisms are different, even the hand gestures are different, even some of the pronunciations are different. You read a newspaper column and you don’t understand many of the references to well–known people, to institutions named by initials, to trends and ongoing stories mentioned as if everyone knows all about them.

This is the linguistic aging process.

Bad enough for a layperson, but for a writer it’s scary. For years I trained myself to write dialogue. I listened to conversations. I made conversations up in my head. I don’t eavesdrop as much anymore—partly because I have too many grownup things to do, partly because eavesdropping isn’t as good outside of New York, partly because, as with so much of life, repetition leads to a diminishing-returns effect.

I wonder if I would be able to write a convincing conversation between young lovers anymore. Or a gabfest among college students. How do they talk nowadays? I don’t know. Sometimes I ask my two grown sons for specific colloquialisms. “How would someone today say ‘trendy’ or ‘hip’?” They tell me “trendy” or “hip.” They must be hiding some secret esoteric knowledge from me!

To learn the new lingo I would probably have to watch TV, getting it from an artificially processed and presumably stale source rather than absorbing it from the air I breathe.

There’s hip–hop slang and there’s computerese and there’s something else, too, a pervasive cleverer-than-thou insiderism, uptodateism, that seems to turn every sentence in every “alternative” newspaper into a cartwheel—an intended cartwheel, anyway. I read the reviews and half the time I quit after a couple of paragraphs because the writer has not been able to make me understand what the movie was about, what kind of music the group plays, what the person being interviewed is famous for.

Entire generations of sports idols and pop stars have come and gone since the last time I paid much attention. People I think of as newcomers are retiring or staging comebacks.

In the blogosphere it’s especially noticeable. People use words like “Fisking” and “Godwining.” I have no idea who Fisk or Godwin are or what they represent. (But why do so many of these blog words seem to describe varieties of nastiness?) I have only a vague intuitive sense of what schwinging consists of or what it means to be snarky. I can decipher two or threes emoticons and an equal number of chatroom acronyms.

A few days ago there was a fascinating controversy on Sisu’s site when she showed photos of her cat killing a mouse. I saw nothing wrong with the practice, and they were good photos too. I thought I might write a comment. But people were talking about something called an InstaLanche and I felt completely at sea. InstaLanche -- Wha?

I tell myself it’s okay because the words will all change in five years anyway.

My defensive strategy is to write in standard English and avoid slang. It happens to be sound literary procedure, too—you’ll find very few topical references or slang words in Chekhov, Tolstoy, Austen, the Brontes, etc., and that’s one reason their work is still so readable. (In contrast, in American writing today topicality runs amok.) In my case, an artistic choice is also an adaptive necessity.

If it didn’t make me feel left behind, I’d think that this past decade’s ferment of slang and colloquialism is a good thing. Linguistic invention is a sign of cultural innovation, isn’t it?

Maybe. But what if it’s just a sign of people compulsively seeking new ways of saying the same old things -- “the all-old masquerading as the all-new,” as D. H. Lawrence once said? I get the feeling there are thousands of people out there racking their brains to think of new software names and straining to keep up with this minute’s stylish verbal aggression.

Like all oldsters, I compare this self–important linguistic busyness to what was happening in my youth. We had slang too, but we had something else: actual new things to describe, and not just new machines but new ways of being and perceiving.

I think back to a couplet from a Jefferson Airplane song, “Wild Thyme”:

It’s a wild time
I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet.

Imagine doing something so new it doesn’t have a name yet. The first people to make fire must have felt that way. The first people to smear red clay on a cave wall and think it might represent something. They weren’t sitting around in meetings trying to think of names for it.

Those were the new times.