The linguistic legacy of Sept. 11

Posted by Sandeep

Today, the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, is a complex day for Americans. I can’t write anything in remembrance more eloquent than what is already out there, so I won’t try to do so. (But I encourage you to read the New York Times article.)

My hometown, Holmdel, N.J., erected a monument in the memory of our residents who lost their lives in the attacks. It’s a wonderful memorial. Two hands, pleading, reach out to the sky. Every Sept. 11, the hands are illuminated by two lights shooting up into the sky.

In memoriam.

In memoriam.

Around them are carved the following nine words, selected by the victims’ families:

Liberty – Heroism – Unity – Freedom – Faith – Hope – Love – Family – Peace

Those words and their associated concepts are the foundation on which our town, shaken to its core by those attacks, wanted to see our community rebuilt. I think they’re a beautifully chosen set of words, filled with simple hope and underwritten with a painful sadness.

Ten years later, I’m too far removed from my hometown to know how my community is dealing with the anniversary of the attacks, but I hope and believe that they are keeping those nine words in mind.

How did the September 11 attacks, a massively traumatic event in the American psyche, affect our language? NPR’s Fresh Air‘s resident linguist, Geoff Nunberg, argues that the attacks had no lasting effect on American vocabulary. There’s almost a strange hopefulness in his contention that 9/11, beyond its immediate aftermath and especially now, doesn’t occupy the forefront of our thoughts and lives.

[I]t’s striking that 9/11 and its aftereffects have left almost no traces in the language of everyday life. … That’s the big linguistic difference between 9/11 and World War II. That war left a vast legacy in the American vocabulary — beachhead, blitz, blockbuster and blood bath; boondocks, blackout and brown-nose, just to name some of the b’s.

The September 11 tribute in New York City.

The September 11 tribute in New York City.

“By the weird logic of terrorism,” the patriotic thing to do in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was to simply live our lives as normally as possible, unlike earlier wars where everyone’s lives and experiences were defined by overseas conflicts. Because of that difference, Nunberg argues, 9/11′s linguistic impact was more shallow than other conflicts and attacks.

Ben Zimmer, writing in the Boston Globe, offers that terms like “Ground Zero,” once inextricably attached to the 9/11 trauma, are slowly being generalized and re-appropriated into their pre-9/11 senses. (He was also interviewed by NPR on the same subject.)

For many, the generic description ground zero had become the name of a specific place, Ground Zero. … Immediately post-9/11, using ground zero so cavalierly may have felt inappropriate or even offensive. That is clearly no longer the case, however.

The Times also has an interesting list of significant linguistic/cultural changes that occurred in 9/11′s wake.

I think my age skews my perspective on how English changed — I was in 7th grade in 2001, and I was just learning how to write properly then — so I can’t really offer up any intelligent thoughts on how English changed since the attacks. Older readers: what do you all think?