On Language

GosimageUvalde, Texas

I was in Uvalde to watch the World Gliding Championships.  It is a rare opportunity as the championships are held in America only about once every ten years.  Lately, when it is in the U.S., it is in Uvalde. I guess it has something to do with the perpetually clear skies, the abundant updrafts caused by the billowy white clouds, and maybe just because Uvalde is big enough to have lots of recreational options for the pilots and crews.  With Garner State Park, Leakey and Utopia close by, there is even a lot to do if you want to get out of town.  But in spite of all that, Uvalde has a small town feel that make you feel comfortable almost upon arrival.  The people are among the friendliest in Texas.  I’m proud to call several people there friends.

Watching the gliders cut free from their tow planes and then ride in large circles, climbing higher and higher, I couldn’t help but puzzle over just how they do that.  But by the end of the day, I was tired of thinking and famished so I headed to Oasis for dinner.  Oasis is a strange combination of a ranch supply store and restaurant and I love the salad bar there.  After I filled my plate and sat back down, the waitress brought me my usual pitcher of water (the perfect antidote to a day in the summer sun) and I thanked her.

Her response: “No problem.”

I thought about that for a while.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard that from wait staff in the last year or two.  When did this start? And why?  Unlike the traditional and innocuous “thank you,” her response carries a very different, perhaps darker connotation.  If you think about it a minute, you realize that it suggests that my request for water may have in some way been problematic.  Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable—like I’ve gone beyond the realm of what is a polite request, beyond the normal boundaries of civility.  I’m sure that wasn’t what she meant.  At least I hope it wasn’t.

Language is a tricky business. The whole concept is a kind of Mobius strip where a language develops as a reflection of the way a society thinks, yet at the same time, language also limits the way in which its speakers can think.  Confusing?  Let’s take those one at a time.

The Yup’ik Eskimos have 40 words for snow; the Inuits have 53. Those words are not synonyms.  Snow is a major part of their lives and those words each identify a different kind of snow.  We can see this same phenomenon on a smaller scale closer to home.  I ask students in my Humanities and Linguistics classes to tell me the difference between sleet, hail and freezing rain.  Students who have lived in northern latitudes are asked to sit quietly.  The native southerners make several guesses, for the most part incorrect, and finally acknowledge that they aren’t sure there even is a difference.  Ask the same question to any 12 year old in Michigan or Minnesota and you’ll get the right answers.  Why?  Because these weather phenomena are not a big issue here in the south.  Up north, they are a common part of everyday life.

So our language reflects our lives, our environment and the way we think, but at the same time, it also serves the seemingly contradictory purpose of limiting the way members of society can think.  Consider for a minute the placement of adjectives in English and some other languages.  In English we put our adjectives before the noun (red wine).  In French and Spanish, just to name a couple, that order is reversed (vin rouge).
Try this:   Low, long, wide, black, curvy, shiny…

As a listener, I have to remember each of those words until the speaker decides to give me the noun they modify.  And, I have to hope my memory doesn’t fail me before that happens.  In French, the process would be very different.  I get the noun first—car.  Then, when the speaker adds “low,” as the listener, I change the picture in my head to a low car.   When the speaker adds “long,” I again modify the picture.  There is nothing to remember and the list of adjectives can go on forever; in these languages the listener just continues modifying the picture in his mind.  In English, the length of that list of adjectives is governed by the listener’s memory.

So how does this control our thinking?  As speakers of English, we cannot use as many adjectives in our speech.  In essence, our language prevents us from being as descriptive, as emotional, as detailed as those who speak French or Spanish.  Our language limits our thinking.

Languages are always changing.  If you’ve tried to read Chaucer in Middle English you probably found it hard to pick out even a word or two, and Old English is completely indecipherable to most of us.  Could it be that the waiter’s use of “no problem” is just the first stages of an evolution from “you’re welcome?”  That’s a possibility, but if so, I find it interesting to contemplate how such a change reflects the thought processes of our culture today.  What does it say about the way we view the world?  To say “no problem” suggests that my request for water was, or should have been, problematic, but I was being assured it didn’t turn out that way.  What a relief!

As a culture, have we come to a time where a request for water is unreasonable, or perhaps where a waiter is no longer expected to comply with a reasonable request—where those requests are a problem? I’m not sure I like that option.

Instead, I decided I would hope that “no problem” is just a passing fad that will die out under the weight of its own silliness, as have previous common phrases like “you know,” John Denver’s “far out,” and using “like” every fourth word.  I’d really hate to think that this bit of language is indeed a reflection of our culture and the way we think.

By the way, I left the waitress a 25 percent tip.  I was grading on her service—not her speech impediment.

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