Celebrating the bottom-up evolution of language

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The first thing I wanted to do after finishing Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English was to apologize to my friend and comrade Su. For years, I made fun of Su every time she used “irregardless.” Now I stand rebuked.

Author Valerie Fridland is a linguistics professor and, relevantly, the mother of teenagers. Her book is an illuminating, entertaining, and sometimes startling argument that champions how we actually use language in contrast to the way we are “supposed” to, according to the red pen of our grade-school English teacher.

No holding back the tide of change. Fridland explains early on that there is nothing inherently good or correct about the language rules we are taught. As she says, “We forget we were speaking to each other centuries before we were reading, writing, or sending texts, and we did pretty well at organizing and advancing long before prescriptive conventions came around.”

It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that “guardians of culture” really started to go after writers and speakers with a heavy hand. Everybody and their upper-crust brother started churning out usage guides. As they did, along came out-of-nowhere rules like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” and “don’t split an infinitive” (as in “to boldly go”).

However, despite the best efforts of the grammar police, our use of words continues to evolve in new and interesting ways. What Fridland contributes to this simple idea is exploration of who most leads the changes: girls and young women.

Fridland explains that other specific groups also drive bottom-up language modernization, like youth regardless of gender and speakers of African American English. But, she writes, “Women, as usual, are the vanguard.”

And women’s innovative dominance has been true for ages, from the Middle-English shift from “doth” to “does” to the more contemporary switch from “must” to “have to.” (“I hafta go to the store” instead of “I must go to the store.”)

Getting expressive. Various chapters address the surprising origins of “dude,” discrimination against women because of the pitch of their voice, and the functionality of “um” and “like” (as in, “It was, like, seven or eight years ago”). One of my favorites is “A Little Less Literally,” which is primarily about intensifiers — words that add an extra punch to what we’re talking about.

For example, “I’m literally dying of anticipation.” Or, “I find it extremely annoying when people say ‘like’ a lot.” The cast of characters in this wide-ranging, history-packed chapter include Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Donald Trump, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among many fun others.

Defending intensifiers, Fridland points out that we use words not only to transmit factual information, but also to express our emotions and provide clues to our group affiliations. Intensifiers allow us to do that and, yes, the trend-setters are female.

On board with the pace-setters. In one of the final chapters, Fridland supports the use of “they” as a singular noun to describe a person whose gender identity is unknown or is neither strictly male nor female.

The author calls this “one of the most useful linguistic developments of the twenty-first century.” If you find the use of “they” as a pronoun for just one person tricky, she says, stop and consider: English speakers have all been using a singular pronoun with a plural verb since we could talk.

That word is “you.” We say “You are going to the store,” whether we’re addressing a solo errand-runner or a crowd. “You,” like the advancing “they,” does double duty for both the one and the many.

Closing out the “they” section, Fridland makes a general point: “Arguments on the basis of grammatical correctness are … often only cover for a discomfort with social changes or the groups that such linguistic changes represent.”

Like, Literally, Dude is a good-humored celebration of “linguistic badasses” that’s fresh, funny, and feminist. I recommend it. Totally.

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