If anybody ever understood America, and how Americans talk, it was Mark Twain. When his unexpurgated memoirs come out, a hundred years after his death, as he wished, they will confirm his relevance for our times. His concerns a hundred years ago are still our concerns today.
That’s why this passage, from Chapter Two of Tom Sawyer, tells us a lot about how we respond to technology, and how technology affects the way we talk. You’ll recall (I hope) that in Chapter Two Tom has to performed the horrible, unspeakably humiliating task of whitewashing the fence. (The equivalent for today’s teenagers would be clearing out the garage.) And as Tom goes out with his bucket, who should appear but Ben, the boy whose ridicule Tom fears above all. Here’s how Ben makes his appearance:
As he drew near, he slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to star-board and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance — for he was personating the Big Missouri, and considered himself to be drawing nine feet of water. He was boat and captain and engine-bells combined, so he had to imagine himself standing on his own hurricane-deck giving the orders and executing them:
“Stop her, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling!” The headway ran almost out, and he drew up slowly toward the sidewalk.
“Ship up to back! Ting-a-ling-ling!” His arms straightened and stiffened down his sides.
“Set her back on the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow! ch-chow-wow! Chow!” His right hand, meantime, describing stately circles — for it was representing a forty-foot wheel.
“Let her go back on the labboard! Ting-a-ling….”
And so it goes. Ben was imitating the most powerful communications medium of his time, the steamboat. Tom and Ben could sit on the banks of the Mississippi every day and watch these great vessels go by. The steamboats of mid-nineteenth century America went to faraway places with strange-sounding names, while the boys were stuck in small towns; naturally Ben pretends to be “boat and captain and engine-bells combined.”
Nowadays the principal economic significance of steamboats is that they house casinos, but Twain’s observation retains its force. As part of our love of technology, we Americans like to imitate the dominant technology of the day. In fact we like to imitate it so much that it re-structures the very way we speak. And what is the dominant technology of our day?
My candidate for the dominant technological communications medium of the century since Twain’s death is the screen. When you think about it, you realize that for all its permutations over the years, the screen has persevered through other technological changes, and that its overwhelming importance shows no signs of slackening.
The first screens that showed visual images were movie screens, and the first movie screens were just sheets thrown over a clothesline. As the movie business became big business, and the lavish art deco movie palaces of the twenties were built, the stages became shallower. They only needed to be deep enough to accommodate a screen.
However, as Norma Desmond laments in Sunset Boulevard, “The screens got smaller.” As television gradually grew to dominance in America during the fifties, the screens seemed impossibly small to people accustomed to big movie screens. As movies began to compete with television, the movie screens got much larger, as in Cinemascope. But the television screen was right there in the living room, and you didn’t have to pay anything to watch it. Barry Levinson’s movie Avalon shows how television re-organized Americans’ eating habits, among other things. Without the television screen there would have been no TV table, for example.
And in the early days of the computer this phenomenally important device was described as a “cross between a typewriter and a television set,” because it had a keyboard and—of course—a screen. Like the first television screens, the first computer screens were convex, and convex screens only recently gave way to flat screens, which have become a key indicator of uptodateness and prosperity in American homes.
And today? What’s the first thing that people do when their plane lands? They check their messages by looking at the screens on their cell phones, of course.
And we still look at all these screens today—movie screens, TV screens, computer screens (of wildly varying sizes), and cell phone screens. So is it any wonder that, like Ben in Tom Sawyer, by the time they’re ten, kids adopt speech patterns that are affected by the dominant technological medium of our time—the screen? That is to say, they speak screenglish.
Take, for example, a statement that I’ve heard more than once: “So I’m like no way.” This one statement incorporates the three essential features of screenglish, and the first of these that interests us is the use of the historical present.
Once upon a time people used the past tense to talk about the past. To state the obvious, this is why all nineteenth-century novels were written in the past tense: “He did this, and she said that.” However, as screens began to have their way with language, the historical present appeared, and people wrote and spoke about the past using the present tense, as in “So I’m like no way,” which is an account of a conversation in the past. But it’s in screenglish, so the speaker uses a present tense form. In the seventies whole novels began to be written in the present tense.
The thing is, everything that happens on a screen happens in the present. The events may have happened in the past, but we see them in the present. They seem to us to be happening in the present, so we speak of them in the present tense.
As I listen to kids in their early teen years, it seems to me that they mostly speak in the present tense, but occasionally lapse into the past. I hope that somebody like Deborah Tannen, author of Talking Nine to Five and other books, will study this matter, and determine when kids use the past and when they use the present. The findings of such a study would have important implications for educators concerned with language arts, for example.
It’s not just that the kids who speak screenglish speak in the present tense. With very rare exceptions, such as the famous crawl that begins Star Wars, all the language that we experience while we’re looking at screens takes the form of dialogue. So naturally the kids who speak screenglish take great delight in recounting conversations that took place in the past. And since they speak screenglish, they use the present tense to recount these conversations that took place in the past: “So I’m like no way.” Not “I was.”
It remains to discuss the most important word in screenglish, the one word without which speakers of screenglish can hardly speak two sentences: “like.” “Like…like…like.” Anyone who spends time with teenagers has surely noticed how often they use “like.” This frequent use of “like” is the surest marker of screenglish, and deserves thoughtful consideration.
Consider the following sentence: “That movie was so realistic that it was just like being there.” If you say this, what you mean is that what you saw on the screen was for all intents and purposes the same as what you would have seen if you had been there. But you weren’t there, so you say “like.” If we agree that the experience of different kinds of screens is the determining experience of kids who are growing up today, and it is, then we can readily understand what they’re doing when they use “like” so often.
Since what they see on screens (especially on the screens of video games for this age group) is so exciting, so mesmerizing, and so involving, they want to assimilate their non-screen experience to screen experience. They especially want to do this because they perceive their non-screen experiences as less exciting, less mesmerizing, and less involving than their screen experiences. So they do the best they can. They present conversations that took place in the past in the present, and since the conversations that matter to them take place on screen, they present those non-screen experiences as being “like” screen experiences.
If screenglish has some of the features of standard, that is, non-screen English, it ought to be possible to translate back and forth. Hence, “So I’m like no way” translated into standard English becomes “And then I refused.” The word “so” marks the transition—it would be a cut in a movie or TV show—from a shot of one person in a conversation, someone who has just said something, to the speaker. And the speaker refuses to comply with a request that has just been made, and says, “no way.” That is to say, “I refuse.”
A common response to analyses of variations on Standard English such as screenglish is to bemoan these changes and wonder what they world is coming to. My reply to such understandable expressions of concern is to say that the world is coming to what the world has always come to. As Ben’s imitation of a steamboat indicates, young people usually speak and think in ways that are determined by the communications media of their time, and have been doing so for a long time. The parents of kids in the age of the steamboat were probably just as concerned about the way Ben and his contemporaries talked as people today are concerned about screenglish and the way kids say “like” so often.
But if the history of English tells us anything, it tells us that its short words and vaguely defined parts of speech make it capable of responding to and absorbing technological change of various kinds. After all, these and other features of English have made it the language of choice for computers and thus the standard language for international business. So who knows? Perhaps in a decade or so the kids who are learning to speak screenglish today will grow up to write great movie scripts and even great poetry in screenglish.