John McWhorter: There Now Is Less Writing About “We” and “They” and More About “I”

From a New York Times guest essay by John McWhorter headlined “Don’t, Like, Overanalyze Language”:

A most interesting recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — examining what its authors describe as “the surge of post-truth political argumentation” — proposes that of late, English speakers and writers are more given to using intuition than reason.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which traces the rates of usage of words and expressions in a massive corpus of books (and newspapers such as this one), the paper’s authors conclude that since around 1980, English speakers have been more given to writing about feelings than writing from a more scientific perspective. From around 1850 on, they found, the frequency of words such as “technology,” “result,” “assuming,” “pressure,” “math,” “medicine,” “percent,” “unit” and “fact” has gone down while the frequency of words such as “spirit,” “imagine,” “hunch,” “smell,” “soul,” “believe,” “feel,” “fear” and “sense” has gone up.

The authors associate their observations with what Daniel Kahneman has labeled the intuition-reliant “thinking fast” as opposed to the more deliberative “thinking slow.” In a parallel development, the authors show that the use of plural pronouns such as “we” and “they” has dropped somewhat since 1980 while the use of singular pronouns has gone up. They see this as evidence that more of us are about ourselves and how we feel as individuals — the subjective — than having the more collective orientation that earlier English seemed to reflect.

They conclude: “The universal and robust shift that we observe does suggest a historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and — inextricably linked — between the rational and the emotional.”

In general, one wants to be aware of such developments. And not just linguists. But the implications the authors draw from their findings are distinctly a headful. They see the new way of using language as evidence of a kind of despair over sociopolitical conditions, necessitating a rather forlorn clinging onto one’s own impressions out of a lack of anywhere else to grab hold. While they concede that causes for the trend they observe are “difficult to pinpoint,” they posit that one reason we use more subjective language now could be due to “tensions arising from neoliberal policies which were defended on rational arguments, while the economic fruits were reaped by an increasingly small fraction of societies,” as we suffer the “negative effects of the use of social media on subjective well-being.” Further, they write, “If disillusion with ‘the system’ is indeed the core driver, a loss of interest in the rationality that helped build and defend the system could perhaps be collateral damage.”

I’m inclined to think the tendency the authors identify stems from things less agonizing. For one, it is often the case that the process by which language changes is that something starts out being about objective observation and drifts into being, as it were, all about me. The word “rather” began as meaning “earlier.” When Tennyson wrote, “Till rathe she rose, half-cheated in the thought” he meant that the literary figure Elaine of Astolat got up early. But if you do something earlier than something else, chances are you prefer it, and after a while “rather” came to refer to your internal preferences, what you prefer to do over something else — I’d rather do the Charleston. Tennyson’s usage was objective; ours is subjective.

Consider also a recent piece by The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany about how the slang adjectivization of “cringe” — It was so cringe when he did that! — began in the early aughts as a way of expressing sympathetic embarrassment with someone making a fool of themselves in some way, but has drifted into being used unsympathetically to underscore someone or something gauche, repellent or downright mortifying. Now it’s all about the speaker’s judgy feelings apart from any attempt at empathy: more subjective than it began as.

So, the drift from “all about that” to “all about me” is ordinary. The question is: Why would this have happened to such an unusual extent since 1980? My money is less on angst than informality. English usage became less cosseted after the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, to the point that the time traveler to America a century ago would find it a major adjustment to grapple with how strictly general mores policed the formality of public speech and writing. Inherent to informality is being more open about the self, less withholding about the personal, more inclined to the intimate. To “let it all hang out” entails more words about feelings.

And as for the idea that the de-emphasis on the collective must be an index of lesser deliberation and a resort to mere personal impressions, what appears less collective may just be less formal, while still as collective as ever.

For example, articles such as this decade-old one in The Journal of Positive Psychology make a point similar to the National Academy of Sciences paper, using the Ngram Viewer to show that rates of word usage suggest a decline among Anglophones in using words describing virtue or morality. Neither study, however, takes sufficient notice that we can and increasingly do express concepts traditionally conveyed with the doughtiest terms in more approachable ones. The paper noted that we less frequently describe someone’s “humbleness,” but we do say people are “down to earth.” The use of “honesty” may have gone down, but the use of “truth-telling” has gone up. We’re less likely to refer to “reciprocation” nowadays, but regularly talk about “giving back.”

A keen example of how collectivism, as well as rationality, persists amid the informal is the colloquial usage of “like.” The conversational “like” strikes many as merely a messy hedge that The Kids use too much. But from the point of view of linguistic analysis, “like” is a subtle and even kindly thing. Hedging is but one of its functions. As Alexandra D’Arcy, a University of Victoria professor, writes in “Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context: Eight hundred years of LIKE,” the many contemporary uses of the word “like” are “highly useful, both linguistically and socially,” quite to the contrary of the perhaps schoolmarmish view that the word “detracts from the message by framing the speaker as inarticulate.”

If someone tells of someone else unexpectedly showing up and says, “It was, like, him!” there is no hesitation involved. D’Arcy terms the usage of “like” in this way as a discourse particle, and how it functions is as a shorthand way of indicating a proposition: Pull your mental camera back and imagine the scene: I’m doing my thing, suddenly the doorbell rings, I open the door and of all people, it’s him! Guiding your listener to share your sense of surprise is a way of soliciting closeness. You step outside of your mind and invite your comrades in.

It’s probably no accident that using this kind of “like” took off in the 1980s, just as the overall change the authors of our paper note did. Crossing interpersonal boundaries in this way, this usage isn’t individualistic; it’s collective, taking into consideration that others’ mental pictures may be different and trying to bring them closer to yours. And the common thread between the new prevalence of personal words and the myriad usages of “like” is informality. Few would trace the flowering of “like” to a loss of faith in neoliberalism.

An explanation that, like, floats the most boats the most handily is preferable.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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