Steven Pinker on ‘Literally,’ Emojis, and Other Trends That Aren’t Destroying English

Scott Porch in The Atlantic:

LeadScott Porch: Do people write the way they talk?

Steven Pinker: Not really. Clearly, there’s overlap and some people write in a more conversational style than others, but it is striking how a transcript of a talk given extemporaneously does not read well on the printed page. I first noticed this when I was a teenager and read the Watergate transcripts—the conversations among Nixon and advisors like Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Mitchell. A number of people at the time who had never seen conversations transcribed were astonished at how difficult they were to interpret.

Porch: What do you think about the flagrant misuse of the word “literally”? Does it literally make your head explode?

Pinker: [Laughs.] It’s understandable why people do it. We are always in search of superlatives, of ways of impressing upon our hearer that something that happened is noteworthy or even extraordinary. And the words we use to signal that eventually lose their meaning.

Porch: Like “awesome.”

Pinker: “Awesome” is a recent example. In the UK, “brilliant” is used for the most banal observations. Before that, words like “terrific,” meaning inspiring terror, “wonderful,” inspiring wonder, “fabulous,” worthy of fable. We see the fossils of dead superlatives that our ancestors overused the way we overuse “awesome.” “Literally” is a victim of a similar type of inflation. The figurative use doesn’t mean the language is deteriorating. Hyperbole has probably been around as long as language has been around.

More here.