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John Brown

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Like It or Not: America's Dirty Little Secret

Posted: 04/25/10 10:19 AM ET

There's a dirty little secret in America today: all too many of our young people, whatever their biological age may be, can't speak.

Sure, they can Facebook, text message, Twitter, but they can't speak.

First, vocal cords. Why do so many attractive, intelligent young women mutilate their vocal cords when they utter a word? They grind their voices like fingernails scraping a blackboard. They uptalk as if sentences had no end or conclusion. (A theory: by vibrating their vocal cords to lower the sound they produce, young ladies want to "masculinize" their voices, thereby taking revenge on rampant sexism).

Young men, in contrast, prefer to mumble. Whoever said the sexes, always in a battle, were ever the same?

Then there's "like." Have you ever been on public transportation with young people "speaking" over their cell phones? One in every three/four words is "like."

Maybe it doesn't drive you nuts -- if you're hard of hearing.

Another favorite: "Whatever."

Do these linguistic tics reflect young people's understandable, instinctively negative reaction to the uber-precision of a high-strung, non-stop "communicating" technological society with a "standard" American English sadly inherited, some would say, from not yet fully dead white males?

So much of everything, in the USA "homeland" these days, is timed, measured, "messaged" even when we cross streets. You've got eight seconds before a car will kill you, the electronic sign tells the pedestrian. Rush, rush, rush (ok, safety first).

Buy sugar-free Coke Now! Now! Now!

No wonder the young among us use language to slow things down, by being comfortably vague when they -- we -- "speak."

After writing your supposedly tightly-worded resume, don't you just want to say "like," which has no meaning at all? Like, you know what I mean? You don't know what I mean, but that's, like, ok. Like.

Or is it that young people learned how to "speak" by looking at essentially non-verbal cartoons on TV, with absent parents with whom they could not "talk," as they -- the parents -- were "at work"? Again, perhaps.

Or are we just being democratic -- speak, baby speak, whatever that "speak" may be?

Another possible reason: Rhetoric -- it's been around since at least Aristotle -- has been essentially abolished from college curricula.

Instead, we idolize "power-point" presentations that minimize the use of language and, in some university foreign policy programs, organize "public diplomacy" courses that overlook, in perhaps too many cases, the importance of classical rhetoric in shaping human discourse.

(How can a future diplomat ever learn a foreign language -- essential in carrying out public diplomacy -- if he/she cannot even speak his/her own language beyond "like" and "whatever" -- or, more generally, beyond the American contemporary way of "speaking" among the young?)

True, speaking "proper" English is a convention. Chaucer isn't today's "conventional" English. Jefferson, as I discovered from reading, with much pleasure, his manuscripts, makes no distinction between "its" and "it's." No one in her right mind would want language to stand still. What makes language human is its ability to evolve -- let's hope for the better.

But isn't the magic and poetry of well articulated (I hate the word "articulate," do you have a better one?) face-to-face language disappearing in our time, here in America -- the America of the so-called "web 2.0 communications revolution" -- in a tsunami of "likes" and "whatevers"?

Now, after all the preaching, I want to make you feel comfortable. Report from the forthcoming Evening News:

How, like, ironic, or, whatever, like distressing. Like, you know what I mean. Whatever.

Like, whatever, forget about it.

I like like, Big like Brother. Like, abolish language Big Brother, like is, like, the best way to newspeak, how we, like, "speak " -- whatever.

About Winston -- after his, like, treatment at the Ministry of Truth -- we know about him from, like, the updated version of 1984 we, like, just, like, just got, whatever -- glad you, Win, like, feel better.

Like, Win, turn on, like, your cell phone: Speak to say nothing. Say nothing to speak.

Like, like "like." Or else.

This, like, is the six o'clock evening news. And now a word from our sponsor, the producer of "Like" products -- products you like whatever they, like, are.

P.S. From Newspeak Dictionary: "duckspeak - (To quack like a duck). To speak without thinking. Can be either good or bad, depending on who is speaking, and whether or not they are on your side."

 

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