August 22, 2010 @ 9:14 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Linguistic history, Pragmatics
David Craig asked whether Anand Giridharadas is suffering from the Recency Illusion in his small piece on "so" (Follow My Logic? A Connective Word Takes the Lead, NYT 5/21/2010), which observes that
“So” may be the new “well,” “um,” “oh” and “like.” No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight. […]
Giridharadas disarms antedating by citation:
One can dredge up ancient instances of “so” as a sentence starter. In his 14th-century poem “Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer launched a verse with, “So on a day he leyde him doun to slepe. …” But for most of its life, “so” has principally been a conjunction, an intensifier and an adverb.
What is new is its status as the favored introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of “well,” “oh,” “um” and their ilk.
So it is widely believed that the recent ascendancy of “so” began in Silicon Valley. The journalist Michael Lewis picked it up when researching his 1999 book “The New New Thing”: “When a computer programmer answers a question,” he wrote, “he often begins with the word ‘so.’ ” Microsoft employees have long argued that the “so” boom began with them.
And it's wonderful to see that he cites a linguist, Galina Bolden, and links to one of several papers that she's written on the subject ("Implementing incipient actions: The discourse marker ‘so’ in English conversation", Journal of Pragmatics 41:974–998, 2009).
However, Bolden's work doesn't address the recency question, as far as I've found; and as Giridharadas recognizes, her analysis of so doesn't seem to be quite the same as the one that he puts forward:
But in the algorithmic times that have come, “so” conveys an algorithmic certitude. It suggests that there is a right answer, which the evidence dictates and which must not be contradicted. Among its synonyms, after all, are “consequently,” “thus” and “therefore.”
And yet Galina Bolden, a linguistics scholar who has studied of recorded ordinary conversations and has written academic papers on the use of “so,” believes that “so” is also about the culture of empathy that is gaining steam as the world embraces the increasing complexity of human backgrounds and geographies.