Christopher Hitchens falls flat on “you know” and “like”

Christopher Hitchens can’t do language commentary, you know

In looking around for something else, I came across an article on language by Christopher Hitchens. For all his skill in analyzing social progress and literature, Hitchens doesn’t seem to have ever even seen the cover of a linguistics book.

The whole article is a hot ball of gobbledygook, but I want to focus on one thing Hitchens talks about in it. He starts his article by disparaging Caroline Kennedy for the number of times she uses you know in two interviews. He writes:

When Caroline Kennedy managed to say “you know” more than 200 times in an interview with the New York Daily News, and on 130 occasions while talking to The New York Times during her uninspired attempt to become a hereditary senator, she proved, among other things, that she was (a) middle-aged and (b) middle class. […]

This is an example of “filler” words being used as props, to try to shore up a lame sentence. People who can’t get along without “um” or “er” or “basically” (or, in England, “actually”) or “et cetera et cetera” are of two types: the chronically modest and inarticulate, such as Ms. Kennedy, and the mildly authoritarian who want to make themselves un-interruptible.

Hitchens gets his figures from the New York Daily News, which did not publish a transcript of the interview, and the New York Times, which did. In the NYTimes interview, the transcript shows that Kennedy says you know 138 times. That sounds like a whole lot – and it is! Kennedy says you know more frequently than people do in the TV Corpus, the Movie Corpus, the SPOKEN section of COCA and the BNC2014 corpus (see the table below).


For comparison’s sake, I’ve also included the counts of how many times Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner used you know in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last year. He’s not as high as Kennedy, but he’s much higher than COCA and the BNC2014.

You’re probably thinking: Sure, that’s all fine, Joe. But Christopher Hitchens wouldn’t use you know when speaking… and certainly not on NPR like those riffraff Pulitzer prize winners.

Friends, here is Christopher Hitchens using you know in an interview on NPR:

HITCHENS: [Thomas Paine] was one of those very fortunate people who had the luck to live in a time when it really looked as if, as he put it – Ronald Reagan used to be fond of quoting this, of all people – he said, we have it in our power to begin the world over again. Most people live their lives politically in times of, you know, weariness and compromise and ordinariness.

HITCHENS: [Thomas Paine] carries on, you know, saying he hopes it’ll happen and he thinks that this Nelson, Admiral Nelson business has all been a bit overblown by the press.

HITCHENS: it’s very hard to ignore the evidence of a design, that there is an order in nature, there’s something that suggests a possible authorship. They also used to wonder, you know, how come the fossils are so high up on the mountainside? How come the seashells are found at the top of the hills, how did that happen? See, they didn’t know. Darwin wasn’t going to be born till 1819 or was it 1809? I sometimes get this wrong.

HITCHENS: Agrarian, as Jefferson would have preferred to say, yes. That that’s what keeps people in harmony with one another and with the land, with nature; prevents the alienation and dissipation that comes from urban life. I mean, you know, if you have urban life, the next thing that’ll happen is you’ll have paper money, and then where will you be? People will be doing it in the street and frightening the horses.

Hitchens is supposed to be there as an expert on the topic under discussion, but judging by his own comments on language, he seems to be trying to shore up his lame sentence. Or perhaps he’s chronically modest and inarticulate. Or maybe he’s just the mildly authoritarian who wants to make himself un-interruptible. It could be any one of these really. Or it could be, you know, just a normal human being speaking English in the way that normal human beings do.

Hitchen’s uses you know with a frequency of 1,131.48 per million words. He doesn’t use it as much as Foner or Kennedy or the speakers in COCA. He does, however, use you know more than the speakers in the TV and Movie corpora.

But of course Hitchens is a man apart. You know?

Why does this matter?

I’m glad you asked. I’ll copy and modify something that I wrote in a previous post.

Women, especially young women, and people of color are at the vanguard of language change. They often command more styles (or varieties) of language than white men. (At least in English).

But women and POC are at the same time discriminated against for the way they use language. They are, for example, discriminated in job interviews and in the workplace, especially for the ways they speak.

Hitchens’ article was published in Vanity Fair. It is specifically for the people who hold power in society, the people who can discriminate and devalue others in society, the people who hold the reins of social and cultural critique. Rather than understand the ways that other groups of people use language (and learn what these uses mean), Hitchens is requiring that people change the way they speak and write in order to accommodate him. I don’t care if Hitchens didn’t mean to be discriminatory or if he had good intentions with his article. You know what they say about the road to hell… They say shut up and listen to women and people of color.

Hitchens is not asking people to accommodate him – he is telling them to. And he is labeling those who don’t with terms like “chronically modest” and “inarticulate” and “mildly authoritarian”. He is accusing them of trying to make themselves “un-interruptible”.

That last point deserves further examination. One of the things that discourse markers do is to signal that the speaker is not done speaking and therefore should not be interrupted. There’s a reason that a woman would use these discourse markers in conversation with men – as Caroline Kennedy did in an interview with two men from the NYTimes. Anthony Oliveira put it well on Twitter:

Hitchens’ article is what linguistic discrimination looks like. He derides a word or phrase or way of speaking (without facts or research to back it up), and tells people to judge others when they use these forms of language. Hitchens is not alone in doing this. It is happening all around us and it needs to stop.

So the next time you see this shit, throw it in the fucking sea.

Other notes

If you want to see actual legit and good linguistic commentary about discourse markers, check out this article “A linguistic anthropologist explains why, um, ‘filler words’ are OK to use” by Dr. Jena Barchas-Luchtenstein (see also the links in this one, and there are more sources in a tweet from Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein).

You can also hear this topic discussed by Barchas-Lichtenstein and Dr. Alexandra D’arcy (who has a whole book on the word like) in this interview on Top of Mind: “‘Like’ and ‘Um’ Aren’t All Bad, War Memorials”.

** Here’s the link to the NY Daily News article, which Hitchens quotes:

Some choice quotes in this one. But this article su-hucks. They talk to speech coaches, which are of course important if you want to learn how to speak better, but not linguists, who would tell us how to interpret Kennedy’s use of you know. Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair seems to be just a long-winded version of this Daily News hit piece.

** For what it’s worth, the reporters in the NYTimes interview with Caroline Kennedy say you know more frequently than Hitchens, the TV Corpus and the Movie Corpus. Their speech is also described in the transcript.

** In the same Vanity Fair article, Hitchens has some things to say about the expressions O.K. and like. Those deserve posts all their own. Stay tuned!

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