It’s day eight. In addition to Sarah, who lives with me, I’ve had real interpersonal contact with a handful of people: gas station attendants, grocery store workers, a few random passers-by. Beyond that, all of my interactions have been digital. Some on video conferencing apps such as Zoom, a few phone calls, lots of texts and emails.
When I do see people in the real world, I’m still inclined to keep conversation to a minimum. Making a joke with the attendant at the liquor store even feels irreverent. Mostly I just keep my verbalizations pragmatic and my eyes lowered.
This morning I was reading up on the history of language in China. While a written Chinese language emerged over 3,000 years ago and remained mostly unchanged, spoken language changed and fractured over time and distance. There appears to be disagreement on exact numbers, but there are likely hundreds of phonological varieties of Chinese, many of which can’t be understood by speakers of another. In some cases, distances of fewer than a hundred miles (and maybe a river or two) separate two mutually unintelligible “dialects,” which might as well be considered different languages.
English, at present, is pretty uniform. There are obvious differences in pronunciation and word choice (my parents love to tease me now that I say “oh” like a Minnesotan), but I could talk to someone from Alabama, or New South Wales, and we would understand each other.
Is that about to change? If language has a glue, it’s social interaction. We largely talk the same way so that we can communicate. But in the past week, my “verbal bubble,” the network of people I speak in person with on a daily basis, has shrunk mostly to the confines of my small apartment, along with maybe the three-block corridor between my building and the grocery store. Much like the rivers and mountains in southern China, quarantine has drawn a boundary on my, and many people’s, use of speech. And I can’t help but wonder: will our social distancing result in linguistic distancing?
So… probably not. In order for my speech to drift and change to a point of mutual unintelligibility from, say, a Wisconsinite’s, it would take a long time. Probably generations. And I’m hoping quarantine doesn’t go that long. It’s also likely that, even if we stayed confined to our homes, we’d still find ways to connect using our voices. We’d get more comfortable with things like Zoom, FaceTime. We’d keep listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos. We’d continue hearing and speaking, and our communicative connection would remain.
At most, we might get some new slang out of it. My dad recently joked with me that “social distancing” will be 2020’s word of the year. Maybe we’ll come up with fun, shorthand ways of saying “isolation” or “COVID-19.” This likely won’t be the new Babel.
So what is it? I’m sitting here in front of my laptop trying feebly to make musings about the future. My anxiety and lack of ability to control seemingly anything right now push me to seek meaning, certainty, something I can expect.
When I was younger, I used to (shamefully) peek ahead to the end of chapters in books I read. If I was reading about a particularly dire situation, I would flip to the end of the chapter and read the last sentence. It would help relieve some of my anxious uncertainty to at least know where the story was leading.
I know something likely life-changing is going on right now. I just want to know where it’s going.