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Irked By The Way Millennials Speak? 'I Feel Like' It's Time To Loosen Up

Roy Scott
Getty Images/Ikon Images

"The way kids speak today, I'm here to tell you." Over the course of history, every aging generation has made that complaint, and it has always turned out to be overblown. That's just as well. If the language really had been deteriorating all this time, we'd all be grunting like bears by now.

But when it comes to language, history is bunk. Or anyway, it hasn't deterred critics from monitoring the speech of today's young people for the signs of cultural decline.

In fact it was a professor of history named Molly Worthen who raised an alarm in The New York Times recently about the way millennials start their sentences with "I feel like," as in, "I feel like the media should concentrate more on the issues."

That expression may sound merely diffident, Worthen says, but its real purpose is to avoid confrontation by turning every statement into a feeling that halts an argument in its tracks — how can you say that my experience isn't valid? In the end, she says, "I feel like" makes logical discussion impossible and undermines the conduct of public life.

That's an awful lot to heap on the meaning of a little colloquialism, particularly when it actually doesn't mean that at all. "I feel like" is just a recent addition to the fluid list of qualifiers we use to hedge our statements so we don't go around sounding like dogmatic jerks — phrases like "I think," "I suppose" and "I guess." When we use verbs that way, their literal meanings are diluted. "I suspect he's already left" isn't like, "I suspect he's been stealing from me." "I guess I'll have the steak" — that's not a real guess, it's just how you announce that you've come to a decision.

And however it strikes you at first, "I feel like" isn't just about feelings, it's a way of introducing an opinion. I was talking with my students about online advertising the other day, and one of them said, "I feel like you shouldn't have to see ads with paid content." He wasn't saying "that's my personal experience and I defy you contradict it." He was just stating his view, and he was open to debating the point.

If you go on Twitter and look at how people actually use the phrase, it usually means pretty much the same as "to my mind" or "if you ask me" — "I feel like the Apple watch should include a dock charger"; "I feel like the Giants have to fix the bottom of their rotation."

You have to be doggedly obtuse to hear those uses of "feel" as mere effusions of feeling, much less to take them as evidence that millennials have all bailed on the sturdy rationalism of the Gen-Xers and Boomers and given themselves over to rampant subjectivity. Young people are perfectly capable of articulating logical opinions, whether about baseball or the political process — they just introduce them differently.

Critics always want to make the next generation seem more alien than it actually is, like anthropologists reporting back from a field trip to Youngster Island.

But then these lamentations are always obtuse. The complaints about "I feel like" are no more off-the-wall than the complaints people make about texting abbreviations, vocal fry and the other features that make the language of the young sound weird to older ears. Critics always want to make the next generation seem more alien than it actually is, like anthropologists reporting back from a field trip to Youngster Island.

In fact, the point of these jeremiads isn't to understand the language or manners of the younger generation. It's to assuage the narcissistic injuries of the generations that are being pushed aside.

Linguistically speaking, the hippies were right about people over 30. That's when our ear for language begins to fail us. It gets harder to learn new languages or memorize poetry; we forget more old words than we learn new ones. And we're apt to misunderstand what young people are trying to say. We register the words and tones but we can't imagine our way into their meanings. All we can do is project, coloring their words with our associations.

That response is automatic, almost neuronal. It doesn't help if we know better. We hear young people use the rising intonation called uptalk and we invest it with the uncertainty that that intonation signals in our speech. Or anyway, I do, even though I'm aware it doesn't mean that to them.

We hear "I feel like" and we flash on psychotherapy and encounter groups and blame it on polarization or postmodern relativism, things that matter more to us than they do at the high-school lunch tables where these expressions get their start in life. Projection again.

It's a natural reaction blame our difficulties on them. If they really cared about communicating with us, they'd use words the same way we do.

It's unsettling to hear the language changing. You feel like things are slipping away from you, like the conversation is moving elsewhere — which of course it absolutely is. You feel a sense of displacement and cultural dispossession; you wish you could somehow roll things back to where they were. The only thing missing is a cap that says "Make the English language great again."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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