RHYS BOWEN: At one stage on Jungle Red we tried to keep Tuesday as a literary-related day, so I'm restoring that idea with some musings about language.
There are many reasons I enjoy setting my books in the first half of the Twentieth Century and I was reminded of one of them yesterday when I was watching TV and a character said ‘Yo. Wassup?”
I realized how far our use of language has sunk since the times I write about. People in those days had large vocabularies. They engaged in unhurried conversation. They read. They listened to books being read to them and they had time to express themselves eloquently. They wrote long, descriptive letters to each other. I still have some letters that my grandmother and great aunt wrote. They begin, “My dearest sister. I hope missive finds you in good health. As I pick up my pen to write to you I send you my fondest thoughts of greeting winging their way across the miles to you. “
All that instead of “Wassup?” They had time, you see. They could not phone, text or even see each other often, so letters were important. My great-grandmother decided to go to Australia when she was in her eighties. In those days that meant goodbye forever and a letter from home would take several months. I’ve often thought how poignant it must have been that a loved one might not know for a long time that their relative across the world was sick or even dead. They wouldn’t know of a new baby or a marriage. No wonder letters were so detailed, so expressive.
What a contrast to our means of expression today. Seriously I think we are reverting to the stone age. Wassup is only one step away from pointing at the mouth and grunting when we want food.
My personal pet peeve is the phrase “My bad.”
My bad what? When did bad stop being an adjective and turn into a noun?
When people today say “My bad,” my characters would have said, “I’m frightfully sorry but in a momentary lapse of concentration I seem to have knocked over my glass and spilled a few drops of liquid on your skirt. I must apologize most profusely.”
Another pet peeve is “No problem.”
I asked a passing waiter if he would refill my water glass and he said “No problem.”
Of course there’s no problem, I wanted to yell. It’s your job to fill water glasses. That is why you are walking around with a pitcher.
I seriously believe that some of the problems of troubled youth come because they simply cannot express themselves eloquently. They don’t have the vocabulary to tell others what they fell.
“Know what I mean? Know what I mean?” They demand and unfortunately we don’t know what they mean because they can’t tell us.
The interesting thing is that in the times I write about—the 1900s through the 1930s a good vocabulary wasn’t just confined to the upper classes. Read the diaries of women in the Westward movement. So expressive and touching as they described the death of a child, the loneliness of the wilderness. And read the works of Frederick Douglass, a black slave. Majestic prose.
So where did we go wrong? Is it that we are so short of time these days? That children are not encouraged to read? That families don’t have time to converse? That we are so addicted to our iPhones that we will soon be speaking entirely in texting shortcuts? I heart U2.
I’m going back to the nineteen thirties now and not one of my characters will say “Like” and “Y’know.” Or even Wassup?
So do you have any pet peeves about our modern vocabulary, or lack thereof?RH