Words have immense power. They paint mental pictures and weave meanings. They convey information and make promises. They also stake territory and set forth identity. This last I’ve been thinking about a great deal in the few weeks I have been working with a group of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. It’s my first foray in a long time into communication with another generation. I just recently turned seventy-seven, and in just about any culture, I could be the great-grandmother of these young people. I’m discovering that, in some ways, we speak different languages.
One of the students, the granddaughter of a friend of mine, explained to me last week that in her world ish is a word. It means “kind of” or “almost like.” I could see this. I am accustomed to ish as the ending of a word, the suffix. I might say that someone is smallish… or hawkish… or unselfish. In books I read, people describe themselves to be peckish. If I refused to accept the word ish, I could see that I might be schoolmarmish, textbookish, or even mulish. So, I did open to it. Language is alive, after all, and to say otherwise would be cultish.
But then another student wanted to use sorta instead of the original sort of.
I dug in my heels. It had been a bad morning. “Sorta is not a word,” I told her.
“It’s not?” she said. “You would never use sorta?” She knew, of course, that there are definitely instances in which one would write sorta.
“If you were doing dialect,” I said. “But then you would set that up in the writing. It wouldn’t be just the one word that sticks out.” You would also be using words like coulda, shoulda, woulda… There would be more than just this one dropped consonant, this one running together of letters.
“Actually,” she said, “I say sorta.”
In fact, we all do—most Americans do, anyway. We speak what I think of as potato chip–English, with careless pronunciation and no thought of syntax. But shouldn’t we have standards for our writing?
So, I asked her, “What if you were writing a note to a friend whose mother had just died? What if you were writing a college entrance essay? And right now, what you’re writing is a paper for a class in school…” In other words, is this a time when you want to write sorta?
On reflection, there is much similarity between the question of sorta and ish. For one thing, it’s generational. It’s young people saying, This is the way I talk. I don’t want to follow your stuffy rules of grammar. I want my language to reflect who I am and how I speak. Funny, too, that both words have the same meaning. Sort of. Kind of. Approximate.
What they remind me of is the conversations I had with my mother and my grandmother sixty years ago—the 1960s, another time when there was a chasm between the generations. My parents were certain that their music was better than mine, that rock’n’roll was just a flash in the pan. And when I married, my grandmother knew that I would need sterling silver cutlery and not the stainless steel I’d told her I wanted. She was wrong. They were wrong, all of them!
I thought my forebears had made a mess of things; I wanted something different for my own life. And that is what I did: something very different. Truthfully, it’s satisfying.
Now, young people are insisting on that for themselves, and I think their reasons are the same as mine once were.
Probably the most profound language issue I’ve faced in these recent weeks is gender neutrality. I had a conversation with a lovely girl—these young people have all been lovely, every one of them—about how a huckleberry would not know the gender of the deer he was looking at and so, naturally, he (the huckleberry) would refer to the deer as they. After some thought, I agreed.
Again, looking back sixty years, the default pronoun, the pronoun that was used universally at the time, was he. The feminine was obscured, and there were no possibilities for shades in between masculine and feminine. I must say that they is an improvement.
What I asked this huckleberry author to do is to use the word deer a bit more than she otherwise might and the pronoun they a bit less. “Because they is plural,” I told her, “and there’s only one deer, readers could be confused. You want to help people follow what you’re saying.”
It’s a question of being kind to your elders. Who, with encouragement, could come around.