Shifting Values

Mohamedarif Suleman (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)

Change is inevitable, it is said, and with change comes resistance.  Through atritious processes of human evolution (not in the Darwinist sense) and social development, many changes become the norm, such that what was special and unusual yesterday, is today very common and ordinary.

Indeed, the vigour and valour of most of the agents of change is derived from this promise itself whereby today’s sufferings yielding into tomorrow’s giant gain, makes the struggle rather worthwhile.

There are certain changes, however, that are good and others not so good.  Judging these is the least of my preoccupations at this stage, but rather to see how and what reflections of the changing society are mirrored in such processes.

I vividly remember, when in my teens, to have thought as audacious the use of the word “guys” in a public speech in the masjid by a young foreign return and educated youth.  It seemed so madly offensive and downright unacceptable, that thereafter it was so easy to reject the message of the speaker, with immense bias, over his use of language.  I remember another incident, whereby a younger Ithnasheri gentleman, in a sober discussion with his father and myself, used the term “sex it up” while actually meaning to say, “spice it up”. It was obviously awkward to hear these words, coming from downtrodden regions of East Africa.  But at least now I had the inclination to understand that these were western bred young men, to whom these words were harmless, and perhaps they did not even realise the anti social sentiment they were emanating thereafter.

When training public speakers and future communicators, I often find myself intrigues by how younger people use accents from lands they have never descended to, yet have little appreciation about the rich vocabulary the language has.  What is the meaning of the word valetudinarian, for instance, I asked in one such session.  There was that expected deafening silence as the word is so obnoxiously alien that it would take someone forever to even figure it out.  In the end, a handout that defines the word as “a weak or sickly person, especially one who is constantly or overly worried about his or her health.” may have made them feel richer in knowledge but it remains doubtful if they would ever use it.

What is apparent about the world we live in today is that words are becoming popular through the use and over use by the media.  For instance, although “ground zero” was a terminology introduced in 1964 in the wake of the atomic blasts, its popular use was postponed till 2001 when the New York City tragedy struck and the media spread it like bush fire.  How many of us ever use the words, aground, abreast, ajar? Perhaps never?

Before this turns out to be an English language class, let me hastily connect the issue to a social indicator.  A new UCLA analysis of words used in more than 1.5 million American and British books published between 1800 and 2000 shows how our cultural values have changed.  The increase or decrease in the use of certain words over the past two centuries — a period marked by growing urbanization, greater reliance on technology and the widespread availability of formal education — reveals how human psychology has evolved in response to major historical shifts, said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and the author of the study.  For instance, the words “choose” and “get” rose significantly in frequency between 1800 and 2000, while “obliged” and “give” decreased significantly over these two centuries. “Choose” and “get” indicate “the individualism and materialistic values that are adaptive in wealthier urban settings,” while “obliged” and “give” “reflect the social responsibilities that are adaptive in rural settings,” Greenfield said.

Greenfield also observed a gradual rise in the use of “feel” and a decline in the use of “act,” suggesting a turn toward inner mental life and away from outward behavior. She found a growing focus on the self, with the use of “child,” “unique,” “individual” and “self” all increasing from 1800 to 2000. 

Over the two centuries, the importance of obedience to authority, social relationships and religion in everyday life seems to have waned, as reflected in the decline of “obedience,” “authority,” “belong” and “pray.”
 
“This research shows that there has been a two-century–long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment,” Greenfield said. “The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society.”
Therefore, when we are looking at changes in the use of words, we must not take them lightly, for they represent shifting values.  Again, this shift may be positive or negative but the alert mind will know for sure what are these changes caused by.
As a parting note, I just met with a father in his 50s, discussing with his son (early 20s) how he should now reduce his life distractions and resort to learning the course he had asked him to take.  In defiant response, the young lad cautioned his father not to use the approach of “you must” as that made him feel owned and dictated.  He advised his father to understand that he was going to do the course, because he wanted to and not because he ought to.  An excellent example of a complete shift in values through the direct use of language, I guess.
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