The emergence of discourse-introductory so in the speech of computer geeks was noted in an earlier post, but closer attention to the language of adolescents and college students has prompted a further exploration of the topic in a wider context.
The emotive connotation of an utterance can be signaled by a number of means, most prominent among which are intonation and affective (particularly, hypocoristic) vocabulary. Discourse strategies can also subserve what is at bottom an emotive aim, viz. predisposing one’s interlocutor to regard favorably––or, at least, to postpone judgment on––whatever is being asserted. In this respect the opening gambit can set the tone, including establishing a channel of communication (i. e., the so-called PHATIC function of speech). This is where discourse-introductory so comes in.
The widespread, practically obligatory use of the word so to open a discourse or join one in the language of the younger generation of present-day American English speakers goes beyond the phatic function, however. In a culture which prizes the establishment and maintenance of anodyne relations in order to promote stylistic solidarity between its members at all costs, an annex has been built in to adjoin the phatic, which can only be regarded as APOTROPAIC.