Saturday, March 23, 2019

Particles: Actually a Thing. Really. For Sure.

What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication?  What serves as a "body language" or words, helping us really connect to others beyond the dry sequence of formal words?

Particles do.

Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."

Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language.  They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with.  English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:

Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean?  Just sayin'.

"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says.  She's right.  I've heard that done.  But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles:  They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."

I like a good conversational nudge.  A secret little word poke.  When words become a facial expression.  It's fun.

When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations.  "Listen to yourself," he said. I did.  He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.

Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself.  Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.

Sorry, linguists:  I don't believe particles destroy the beauty of our language.  I don't think it is lazy to use, them, and I don't think it makes me inarticulate when I do.  Like most words or phrases, they can be fancied up and used perfectly—at the perfect place, time, pause, or thrust of conversation— to enhance meaning and drive a point home.  A good particle makes the listener or reader grin in recognition.

Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness.  After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words.  Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?

It's super-cool.  Truly.

*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker.  The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.

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