If you want to hear the power of culture, record a casual conversation.
Speech patterns are the product of society, writes Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow and linguist John H. McWhorter. “We are simply creatures of what has become a general context.”1 In that case, what do casual conversations characterized by like, just, and you know tell us about our current culture?
The key is catching a casual conversation. You’ll hear, like, people just really, you know, saying like, just, and you know… a lot. This is what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton found in interviewing thousands of emerging adults in the faith community. They found them to be “incredibly inarticulate.”2 Speech patterns were pockmarked with like, just, and you know. This incoherence was largely unknown until recently. What accounts for it? The answer lies in how words are part of the coinage for creating culture. In today’s world, many Americans have insufficient funds to do this.
In ancient times, words were not loose change to be frittered away. God created by speaking wise words: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (Prov. 3:19). “O Lord, how many are your works! In wisdom you have made them all” (Prov. 4:24). The Cultural Mandate, or the “human job description,” calls us to be sub-creators by also wisely naming reality. Naming is defining reality, as Adam does in naming the animals. This required an “insight into the natures of the various creatures, an insight needed to make his governing possible,” writes Dallas Willard.3 Insightful people draw on incisive words to rightly define reality. “A divine element is present in language,” wrote Richard Weaver.4 “Speech is, moreover, the vehicle of order, and those who command it are regarded as having superior insight.”5
The classical and Christian worlds were characterized by a belief that language “had a capacity to faithfully and adequately, if incompletely, convey something about reality to us,” the literary critic George Steiner noted. “For millennia, Western law, literature, philosophy, drama, and historical writings all bore witness to this confidence in language.” Josef Pieper made the same observation in his book, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. “Human words and human language accomplish a two-fold purpose. First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real. To identify it for someone, of course. And this points to second aspect in question: the interpersonal character of speech.” Language sustains our engagement with reality and with one another, Pieper concluded. “If the words becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.”
Words have been tainted since before time. In eternity past, Lucifer was second in command until he broke the meaningful connection between words and reality. “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-14). The consequences were catastrophic. Lucifer and one-third of the heavenly host were cast down to the earth. But this didn’t change the thrust of Lucifer’s work. It continues to break the meaningful connection between words and reality. This is what Satan did in the Garden, deceiving Adam and Eve. The consequences were once again catastrophic.
Language has been more deeply corrupted with the recent collapse of the sacred canopy. For centuries, people understood social language as reflecting a sacred canopy. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the canopy is creation-fall-redemption-restoration. In casual conversations, it is ought-is-can-will. “No social order has ever before existed except as readings of sacred order,” wrote Philip Rieff. You couldn’t confidently define the social order as it ought to be unless you referred to the sacred order, or canopy.
Rieff says the canopy began to collapse with the 1882 publication of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, heralding the death of God. Nietzsche wrote, “We are not done with God until we are done with grammar.” As a result, a “radically skeptical knowledge industry has been built upon the ruins of sacred truth,” writes Rieff.6 It’s why he called today’s elite educational institutions the “higher illiteracy.” Without a sacred canopy, a suspicion arose toward those who claim to define reality as it ought to be. All anyone can say is that “…its like, you know, just something, you know, that you, like, experience.” It’s why our bank account of words reads: “Insufficient funds.”
Like is not necessarily a bad word. It can be simile, or it can denote an insufficient vocabulary, as when John uses like 68 times in the Book of Revelation. He’s acknowledging an insufficient vocabulary for adequately describing eternity. This is essentially how many Americans use like—except that they’re describing the here and now, not eternity. It’s an indication of insufficient language.
When people discover they have insufficient funds, some pass checks from other accounts—in this case, using the word just over and over. In banking, shuffling insufficient funds is called check kiting. It’s writing a check from one account and depositing it in a second bank, then withdrawing money from the second account to deposit back into the first bank before the check bounces for lack of funds. It’s fraud. In conversations, just is fervor without good faith, or what the Bible calls “zeal without knowledge.” It’s intense God-talk: “Lord, we just praise you and just ask you to just bless us…” Jesus however never taught us to pray: “Our Father who art just in heaven, hallowed is just your name. We just want your kingdom to come…” You get the point.
People who kite checks have to keep bank examiners at bay. You know does this in conversations. It’s coercion, deflecting questions. It assumes “we all know,” but doesn’t allow any examiners to investigate by suggesting that we don’t know what is meant. Those who kite checks cannot square accounts. That’s why you know is keeping a distance from examiners so that no one discovers an account has insufficient funds.
Since speech patterns are the product of society, these words tell us about the power of culture. All three, like, just, and you know are culturally conditioned words more than cognitively chosen. They are second nature, reflecting the collapse of a sacred canopy that gives confidence in defining reality. The most effective cultures are second nature, which is why few people are conscious of saying like, just, and you know. Furthermore, a culture with no canopy makes people unconsciously suspicious of others with a richer vocabulary, a “linguistic elite,” writes Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, McEntyre says an American anti-intellectualism with roots in populism easily feels threatened by those who have command of language and use well-turned phrases. This is especially true of emerging adults who have been culturally conditioned to be suspicious of a sacred canopy that gives language to defining reality. This suspicion is why there’s an attitude of indifference and carelessness toward articulate speech. Try to point out why like, just, and you know are bankrupt and you get… Whatever.
Of course, people swear they don’t talk this way. To help them hear their pockmarked pattern, you have to secretly record casual conversations. If the faith community listened carefully, they’d take more seriously the Cultural Mandate. It reminds us that we are creatures of what has become a general context. To shape culture, as opposed to being tone deaf to it, requires being taken seriously. That’s not a privilege granted to those who are, like, just incredibly inarticulate… you know?
1 James McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2003), p. 49.
2 Their findings are available in The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford Press, 2005).
3 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988), p. 49.
4 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 148.
5 Weaver, Ideas, pp. 148-9.
6 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 56.