As befits one who might be (charitably) described as verbose, I love language – I am entranced by it – fascinated by it. Not in a useful, academic way, but in a more generalised, gosh-just-look-at-that sort of way.
I am besotted with etymology, with connections between languages, ancient and modern, origins of sayings or colloquialisms, dialects, unusual or outmoded words – I even have a great fondness for slang, and children’s verbal traditions, and where it all comes from. One great, unexpected bonus I got from my reading about the ECW was exposure to the writing and spelling of the 17th Century – before standardised spellings, people would write what they said, or what they thought others said, which is alarming to the newcomer but gives us an insight into how spoken English must have sounded at that time, and the regional (and, I suppose, class-related) variations in this.
Take a look at the lovely maps of John Speed, from the period around 1610 – check the spellings of the place names – and, of course, the names themselves. Try to imagine where Speed got these names from – from older maps? – Domesday Book? - from local people? – somewhere else?
I have here CS Terry’s book on the life and campaigns of Alexander Leslie – that’s Lord Leven to you and me – sometime Field Marshal in the service of Gustavus Adolphus, later the guiding light of the Covenanter armies. There is much of his correspondence – with the spellings of the day, we can very quickly spot a Scottish speaker from the phonetic way he writes – much of it is still familiar and recognisable.
I understand that language has always changed and evolved, with migration, colonisation, education and religious influences, and – always – with fashion. Obviously, if language never changed, everybody around here in Lowland Scotland would still be speaking Old Brythonic, and I doubt if a single word of that ancient language is still in common use here. And – just a minute – Brythonic must have replaced something older. Like all change, there is a strict limit on the extent to which we can restrict it to what we, subjectively, regard as constructive, or acceptable. We may fight against it or lament it – the educators and the clerics and even the government may try to direct it, but speech is, by its nature, just a flow - the currency of the street, the market, the home, the newspaper (OMG) – it evolves, for the most part, on its own, and the rate of change is accelerating, as the world shrinks and its communications technology moves further into overkill.
Fashions come and go – most of them we probably don’t even notice. To be honest, to offer a couple of examples, I could have managed nicely without the Valley Girls, or the infuriating “Ya?” of the Yuppie Years, or the idiotic fashion for forcing a rising cadence into everyday speech, so that a statement sounds like a question (the usual explanation for this is that it is a sort of running comprehension check – it’s also usually blamed on the Australians, though I’m sure that’s unfair). I am disgusted by the way in which the worthwhile ancient word “like” has been converted into some insane form of punctuation – here’s a commonplace example – this is top model, Jamie Gunns, being interviewed – seems a nice girl, but what on earth is she talking about? Anyone have any observations on educational and cultural decline in the UK?
I am, you must understand, someone who insists on sending text messages which are grammatically correct, solidly punctuated and free of acronyms – I even have the predictive support switched firmly off. Why? I hate to think why – perhaps, in my sad little way, I am fighting some lost cause. Pompous ass. I also have to confess that exposure to US spellcheckers on my Mackintosh has rather dulled my awareness of English vs American spelling – I used to be very sniffy about this, but now I’m no longer sure which version I meant. Perhaps this is progress?
Which brings me – having choked off a whole lot more of the same – to the word “so”.
I have a bad history with “so”. There was a fashion for extended spelling – presumably to denote a lengthened syllable, or an element of gushing – as in “sooooo cute” and similar, seen everywhere (literally ad nauseam) on Facebook. Then there was a bizarre construct which gave us expressions like “that was so fun”, or, as I once heard, “that is so not the right thing to do”. These seem to have calmed down a little – maybe they became So Last Year?
Whatever, “so” is back with a vengeance, though it seems to have become “SO”.
In the mornings, I like to wake up to BBC Radio 4; it maintains some of the better traditions of the BBC – news and comment on current affairs are presented by intelligent, articulate speakers who do not pretend to be my best mates, offer me celeb gossip or update me on what is trending and threatens to leave me behind. So far so good – the problem is the guests. And it’s usually educated, expert guests – spokespersons for action groups, consultants, political mouthpieces, know-alls of every shape and colour.
It’s a formula. When asked a question, the response begins with the word SO, followed by a meaningful pause, and then comes a prepared answer. What are they doing? Does “SO” mean “this is an authoritative reply, so shut up and listen”, or does it mean “I am so intelligent that I recognise that you have asked me a question, and I am now going into Answer Mode”, or does it mean “ah yes – I have a piece of paper here somewhere with the answer written on it”, or what? Why is it infuriating? Why does it make me shout at the radio so early in the morning?
|SO - here's a woman in a hat visiting the Radio 4 Studio|
Is it because it’s a learned affectation, and because the affectations of others are always more annoying than our own? Do these people get instructed how to do this? – do they go to classes to perfect it? – do they practise in front of the mirror? – did they once hear someone who did this, and were so impressed that they decided to adopt it immediately?
To be honest, I couldn’t care less why they do it, but I sincerely wish the fashion would die out quickly – my blood pressure readings in the morning would benefit. In fact, the way language evolves is sneaky anyway – if SO really is here to stay as a permanent change to protocols of spoken interaction, then presumably I will start doing it myself, and I won’t be annoyed any more. Or should we fight back? At the moment, roaring “SO WHAT?” before the rest of the answer follows is a bit childish, but it serves to remind me that there is a point at stake here, and my radio doesn’t seem to get offended.