Today, a thought about the mirror of language. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I wonder what'd happen if I
could meet and talk with the me of fifty years ago.
The all-important question of what we said would be
terribly colored by how we said it. Our values,
beliefs, and expectations are bound up in language.
And language has changed.
Nowhere do those changes reveal as much as they do
in our politeness phrases. "Good morning" has
become "Have a nice day." Same sentiment, but
without the moral force of the word "good." "Nice"
is more neutral. It gives us distance.
Try this one: I ask a favor of you. You grant it. I
say "Thanks, I appreciate your help." How do you
conclude the transaction? The old answer, "You're
welcome," has mutated into something else entirely.
It's turned into "No problem."
No longer are we told that we're welcome to a gift
-- of time, material, or kindness. Rather we're
told that the giver has not been seriously put out
A related change in language has to do with the
word "please." All the Western languages have such
a word -- bitte in German, s'il
vous plaît in French,
prozhe in Polish. The word means, "May
it please you to accept this gift or to do me a
favor." The word "please" is dying out, even as "no
Maybe we're all turning into the warlike Klingons,
or (worse yet) the standup comedians we see on TV.
So try another phrase that's entered the fabric of
our rhetoric -- the phrase, "I don't think so."
Nowadays it means "I disagree with you. You're
wrong." "I don't think so" has become a dismissive
form of dissent.
If you and I disagree, I'm still obliged to
acknowledge your presence by giving my reasons. I
might say, "That contradicts my facts," or "Your
idea violates the laws of thermodynamics," or "Have
you considered Marangoni effects?" When I simply
say, "I don't think so," I claim to be law unto
myself, and I devalue you.
So we shape a new rhetoric in which I tell you, not
that my kindness to you has given me pleasure, but
that it has not unduly troubled me. I simply shrug
smugly and tell you that, if your ideas are at
variance with mine, they're not worth contesting.
And yet, we have not turned into Klingons. We
remain, for the most part, kind and considerate
humans. This new rhetoric is the creation of TV --
that virtual reality where the strong are strong
and the weak are weak. The other night I watched a
show in which three characters said, at different
times, "I don't think so." In each case, a strong
person was putting a weak one in his place.
Today's media tell me to be tough. Don't give away
a piece of myself by telling a friend he's welcome
to my gift. Don't stoop to argue my case. Dangerous
advice, and we hear it so often. It leaves me with
the uncomfortable feeling that, if I could speak
with the me of fifty years ago, I'd have to relearn
an older and gentler rhetoric.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds