Monday, June 18, 2012

At a Loss for Words

Sometimes when I’m listening to boring people speak, whether one-on-one or in a group situation, and the mind-numbing factor is hovering around 10, I try to count the number of times the person speaking says, “You know.” The winner, to date, was a bearded man in his 40s who uttered it 132 times in just over four minutes. I think he was talking about power tools.

I’ve read somewhere that by using phrases such as “You know, “See,” “Get it,” and other meaningless expressions, we’re basically buying the time necessary to think of what to say next. This is necessary because most of us don’t think in complete sentences, or even bother to finish a thought before expressing it. In other words, our brains start something they don’t yet know how to finish—an idea, a concept—and the streaming is not quite as quick as we’d like. So we fill in the blanks.

I think, as well, that we’re losing the ability to express ourselves, and that’s serious. 
According to etymologists and speech researchers, in the past 50 years, the working vocabulary of the average 14 year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words. Says David Orr, a professor at Oberlin, “This is not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It also signifies that there has been a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized and urbanized consumer society… It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the same half-century the average person has come to recognize over 1000 corporate logos, but can now recognize fewer than 10 plants and animals native to his or her locality.”
The decline is not consistent across the full range of language but concentrates in those areas having to do with large issues such as philosophy, religion, public policy, and nature. Sadly, vocabulary has probably increased in areas having to do with sex, violence, recreation, and consumption. Basically, we’re losing the capacity to say what we really mean and ultimately to think about what we mean. Our ability to articulate intelligently about the things that matter most is eroding.
"That sucks," continues Orr, “is a common way for budding young scholars to announce their displeasure about any number of things that range across the spectrum of human experience. But it can also be used to indicate a general displeasure with the entire cosmos. Whatever the target, it is the linguistic equivalent of duct tape, useful for holding disparate thoughts in rough and temporary proximity to some vague emotion of dislike.”
It’s not just teen-agers, young adults, immigrants or the poorly educated. What we have now is an epidemic of incoherence evident in our public discourse, street talk, movies, television, and music. "We are all engaged," wrote Abraham Hershel, one of the leading philosophers of our times, "in the process of liquidating the English language." The lyrics of popular-music lyrics are often pre-Neanderthal groans. The conversation on TV talk shows should embarrass intelligent four-year-olds. Politicians routinely (and proudly) mangle logic and language in less than a paragraph, although they can do it on a larger scale as well.
Add to this text messaging, and a host of other social media instruments that further seek to reduce thoughts and expressions to misspelled syllables and 140 characters of texts and we’re left with communications that are barely above the grunt level.   
You know?

1 comment:

  1. I got really bored reading this! Is it the language?