As a rule, I try to stand up for young people, and I try to stand up for the changing nature of language. Nobody has a bird’s-eye view on life, but when you look at time, change and language with some perspective, you can see that young people are always horrifying older people, and that languages are constantly going through what appears to be “corruption,” but is in fact just normal fumbling toward whatever the future of communication may be. So with those two attitudes in mind, I may be biased on this matter. Maybe I am trying to be positive about something that isn’t positive. But it’s worth a shot at least.
As a young person (I am 26, so maybe I am leaving this age group behind to become a … future homeowner or something), I would like to make an argument in defense of what you might call the insecurity we have started to sew into language. These traits would be:
-Ending sentences with a rising tone, as if turning statements into questions
-Adding softeners like “sort of” or “kind of” or “like” before everything
-Adding “maybe” to sentences, like I did in the first paragraph
-Ending statements with “or something” as if we aren’t quite sure we’ve found the right answer, and want to trail off into other possibilities
-Starting sentences with “I feel”
Let’s talk about the last one. Yesterday I was at dinner with my boyfriend and he was looking up the best way for us to walk to a bar while minimizing our exposure to -10 degree Minnesota weather. “I feel like this is the best route,” he said to me, showing me his map app on his phone.
It struck me as odd right then that he said “I feel” and not “I think” in that moment because it seemed to be more of an analytical conclusion than an intuitive conclusion.
My boyfriend is not part of the alt lit scene that so often makes it a point to start sentences with “I feel.” (I actually realized he had never heard of alt lit the other night and tried to explain to him what it was.) In the alt lit scene, which I am more of a viewer of than a part of, trademark elements of teenspeak or internet speak or newfangled language in general are constantly adapted and welcomed and played with and affectionately satirized. They begin statements with the words “I feel” or “seems like” to an excessive extent. For example, when referencing their own inner state, they will often use “seems like,” as if they do not necessarily have access to the exact, objective nature of their own feelings. (Which I guess are not objective.) “Seems like I am addicted to Toaster Strudels this month.”
This habit of starting statements with “I feel” is a saturated part of not just internet poets’ playful English, but most young people’s English – and apparently also my boyfriend’s. And while it might be simple to say, “Young people today have no idea what they are talking about. They’re terribly insecure and afraid to make any kind of observation without peer approval,” I think it’s more complicated than that.
Our habit of saying “I feel” before every statement is certainly part of being raised in a generation wherein therapy, self help and pop psychology abound. We are taught that we shouldn’t say, “You always do this.” We are taught to say, “When you do this, it makes me feel such and such.” Problems are not about someone else’s objective flaws – they’re about our feelings, and what is causing them. And if we start conversations that way, we’re more likely to turn them into solutions (or so we have been told). So as a result of this, you have a generation of kids and young adults who, from the way they talk, would seem to believe everything they experience is not necessarily objective, but is in fact a feeling, resulting from observation mixed with emotion.
But that’s only part of it. I’m going to go so far as to say that my generation, and the generations younger than mine, see the world with an unprecedented amount of subjectivity, and that is why measures of insecurity litter our speech left and right. We were all raised in an era that is dealing with the discoveries of relative physics, scientific evidence that disproves plenty of the Christian worldview, and the Internet, wherein a new level of diverse voices are making us aware of just how different all of our lives are.
When we make a statement, we are aware that it is affected by our own feelings, our own biases, by collective understandings that could be disproven tomorrow by an expensive study. We’re not sure about what we’re saying because we grew up sick of being told incorrect things constantly delivered with flourishes of authority. We admit that we don’t know sometimes, or … all the time. Not being sure of anything is built into our worldview, and thus our language. So when my boyfriend does something as straightforward as analyze a map, he will, without thinking about it, explain his findings with an admission of subjectivity. “I feel like this is the best route.”
And yes older people on language blogs can insult us all they want, and decry our use of the English language. But we know that the English language is not a static entity, that there is no objectively “correct” way to use it. There is no objective anything. And that’s ok.