So, why do people think that ‘so’ is new?

Posted on June 17, 2010

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Beowulf.firstpage

There’s a fairly old blog post-cum-New York Times article by Anand Giridharadas on the supposed boom of the word ‘so’ as a sentence starter.

Giridharadas claims that recently so “has jumped to the begin­ning [of sentences], where it can por­tend many things: tran­si­tion, cer­ti­tude, logic, atten­tive­ness, a major insight.” In a piece of common-usage etymology, he claims the starting point of ‘so’ as a common sentence beginner at about 1999, in Silicon Valley; it’s (to him) evidence of the logical yes/no thinking of software developers and programmers working out their thoughts in a methodical, absolute way.

‘So’ is claimed by Giridharadas as the product of and the antidote to our modern life, trying to “defragment” our compartmentalised lives.

“So” also echoes the influ­ence of a sci­ence– and data-driven cul­ture. It would have been unimag­in­able a few decades ago that lit­er­a­ture schol­ars would use neu­ro­log­i­cal cor­re­la­tion analy­sis to eval­u­ate texts, or that ordi­nary peo­ple would quan­tify daily activ­i­ties like eat­ing, sex and sleep­ing, or that soft­ware would cal­cu­late what songs we will like.

What Giridharadas overlooks is one of the oldest texts in English Literature, Beowulf, which itself begins with a colloquial, supposedly ’21st-century’ so of it’s own.

Hwæt! Wē Gār‐Dena   in geār‐dagum
þēod‐cyninga   þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas   ellen fremedon.

Seamus Heaney, one of the modern day greats, has written the most engaging and modern of translations of the oldest poem in the English language. His reading of this first word of the epic poem, ‘Hwæt’, shows that beginning sentences (or indeed 3,200 line epic poetry) with a ‘so’ isn’t such a new thing after all.

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was:

So. The Spear Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

So (or Hwaet), perhaps ‘so’ isn’t so newfangled after all.

Boing Boing/anand.ly readers: I follow up on the usage of ‘so’ in another blogpost here.

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