By Sabina Metcalf.
Over a decade ago, leaving my home country, I arrived to America to study and to see life. To grow up. New culture, new language, the air around me filled with different consonants, altered intonations, phonetic quirks. A shy little foreigner, I would always take the opportunity to emphasise, both in class and in my everyday conversation, that English is not my first language. Sometimes, in an urge to show off, I would also add: well, not even my second. On that premise, I sailed my way through policy studies, enjoyed heated debates at international relations seminars, and enthusiastically socialised with my Californian classmates (perhaps a little too enthusiastically, in my mother’s opinion). Then one day our teacher decided to give us a peer-reviewed assignment: we were to write an article on a specific subject and swap it with a classmate, then revise and improve our work based on their feedback. To this day, I am grateful to my reviewer who, having underlined my work with her red pen, wrote: “awesome work but if I read the word ‘basically’ one more time, I am basically going to cut my wrists”. Isn’t this how everyone learns about redundant words in the English language?
They say that the key to good writing is to avoid useless words and phrases. “They say” would be one of them. However, such advice comes with an official warning: you think it is totally harmless when you overuse the fillers like basically, literally, and really in your everyday interactions, but it turns out there is always a lexicographer lurking behind you, eager to record and analyse every single conversational wormhole you enter. Last week the media reported that the informal use of the word “literally” (here used to emphasise something that is not true) has been included as a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, now two other major dictionaries – Merriam-Webster and Cambridge Dictionaries Online – also mention the exaggerated “literally”, adding that it is “used to emphasise what you are saying: He missed that kick literally by miles. I was literally bowled over by the news”.
The catchy little word has also been mocked in popular culture:
This development acted as a linguistic litmus test. You can use it to distinguish your friends from your foes: in an Orwellian “four legs good, two legs bad” crusade, you are suddenly labelled a slipshod if you try to argue that languages, just like societies which practise them, evolve through time and adapt to their environment. This group argues that “literally” has been literally used non-literally for literally centuries: even Dickens said in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): “His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone”, and James Joyce wrote in Ulysses (1922) that a Mozart piece was “the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat”. However, those of a more purist linguistic inclination, labelled semantics nerds, mounted their white horses and rode into the crowds thumping their chests in unison “how could yous?” They claim that the dictionaries have now bowed to the will of the grammar-averse public. They mourn that “the Internet has won”, and “the English language has lost”.
Whether you consider yourself a socio-linguistic liberal or prefer to take on a more conformist approach to semantics, you would agree that as long as any language sparks discussion and debate, it will remain an organic system that is kept alive by millions of individuals and thousands of societies around the globe, each of them contributing to its growth and expansion through their everyday communication, writings, or musings. The world of linguistics is full of rainbow connotations, hidden interferences, and beautiful expressions. Learning a new language makes us experience a state of giddy bliss every time we discover how the language opens yet another door into the unknown: new culture, interesting people, and great literature. As we master another language, we shape it into our own toolbox that we will use for years to come – later it will form our identity and help us reach out to others. The key is to enjoy the language and find pleasure in its delightful oddities and intonations. Because after all, its purpose has always been to build bridges across cultures and communities.
As for my former classmate in America, now basically a friend… Basically, we met up again recently on a sizzling summer night in Los Angeles over a bottle of Californian white and shared a good hearty laugh about that class we took together and my little fondness of English fillers. So even if languages change and shape with time, our enjoyment and pleasure of using them stay with us for much longer.