Friday, February 25, 2011

The State of the Language, Part 1

I know what you're expecting. You think I'm about to go on some English teacher/writer/lit. student diatribe about how text messaging and the crappy writing on the internet (like this blog!) are killing the youth's ability to speak and write. You're picturing me in a high-buttoned shirt, hair pulled into a severe bun, shaking my finger, pursing my lips. Please wipe the image of those horrible old-lady high heels out of your mind; stop seeing a mean librarian. I have impeccable taste in shoes. 

Got these sweet Steve Madden puppies for $4
on Sat. at the thrift store (oh yes, I did put
a pic of shoes in a post about language) 

Regardless of my fashion sense, a diatribe is not imminent. But it is gonna be a long post, so, for the health and mental well-being of all involved, I'm breaking it into 2 parts. 

Part 1: 
I must begin by being honest:  I love language. Even more than shoes and deals. (Yikes!) Sunday night via text, Butcher and I debated the similarity of/difference b/t "obligated" and "obliged" (and I'm obliged to say he was not wrong). This effort may or may not have involved the Oxford English Dictionary. I thrill at explaining to my students on a bi-weekly basis why active verbs trump "to be" verbs. (How 'bout the active verbs in that sentence? Oh yeah, you know you love it.) The things I most love to read - Lorrie Moore, Tim O'Brien, Hemingway - have got a major love affair with language going on; a beautiful, sometimes sensual, evocative love affair. It's enough to make me shiver! 

I love language, so when assaults on English occur daily (hourly, minute-ly), does it hurt me? Of course it does. Just yesterday I asked a particularly delightful student (she really is) why she insists on terrorizing our lovely language (she really does). Said student chuckled and rolled her eyes. I mock-wept. 

What has motivated this post, however, is not a recent personal event or irritation; it's actually a recent - and, I might add, articulate and astute - City Journal article that Brad sent me. In "What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness," Clark Whelton (former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani) laments the ways in which, during the mid-1980s, "Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes . . . transform[ed] college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite." 

Ouch. Double ouch. But he's right. And I'm guilty of not a few of the offenses Whelton details (see the explanation of "playback" in his article; it's like my lifeline). 

You'll note that Whelton's assertion is not the usual complaint about slang/text speak/our-language-is-dying-and-the-youth-is-so-dumb. (How fitting is it that not 10 hours after I started drafting the present post - yes, it's taken me a day and a half to get this into a feasible form - Pepe would have this post over on his blog? You see, I'm on the pulse of America here, people. Except I'm a day behind.) Instead, Whelton's addressing people's refusal to commit in their use of language. 

While he poses a number of very plausible explanations for linguistic vagueness, and lots of people will say we're all just getting stupider (we've been getting stupider and stupider since we were smarter, so that's kind of old news, if you ask me), I've been thinking on this issue since Wednesday, and I have to venture my own account of this phenomenon. 

And so, to close part 1 of this address:  persistent vagueness is a symptom of OverlyFragileEgo-itis. It's a nasty symptom of a very nasty, very communicable disease. And a lotta people (myself not entirely excluded) got it.


  1. You used words with more than one syllable so I'm not sure... did I just get insulted?

  2. Quite the opposite, Pepe! I found it quite humorous that you would think I'd take exception with the notion of texting as conversation - hating on the evils of text messages, blah blah blah, is a very popular language snob stance right now. So, it was fitting that we'd both be heading in the same direction at the same time.