Monday, September 5, 2011

Our Modern Vocabulary and the Atrocities Therein

Listen closely to the next podcast or interview that you come across. Practice active listening, and you might be as shocked as I was. In the dock today are 10 primary offenders that have been degrading and decimating the fluency and coherence of English speaking peoples for decades.
  1. Umm/Err
  2. Umm-uh
  3. Like
  4. So...
  5. Yeah
  6. Stuff
  7. Whatever
  8. Sort of
  9. You know
  10. I mean
There are many more accomplices waiting in the wings, shaking in their inarticulate boots as they await their sentence (and it won't be a sentence that ends with "but").

People have always been like this, right? This enlightened age does not hold the monopoly on a pathetic vocabulary, does it? Read this, my dear, and say that again: 
...when ascending ‘next the seat of God’ even the Muse of Milton falters and grows weak, and the same diction that is so grand and terrible in the hate and defiances of Satan seems not yet grand enough for a discussion between the persons of the Trinity. Milton’s intellect could get as high as the Devil’s, but no higher.... The glorious or terrible images which almost every line calls up are such as no reader can forget, but which remain within him, a cycle of mystical and eternal pictures....
That was written by a young schoolboy about a hundred years ago. Granted, it is only one example of one man's writing (G.K. Chesterton, if you're interested), but it shows a capacity for expression that one has to hunt and peck for nowadays. Forget about hearing it on the streets.

Have we lost the ability to verbalize abstract thought? Are our minds so full of holes that we feel compelled to fill the gaps with "umms" and "you knows?" Is text-speak the new enemy of the people? In City Journal Clark Whelton wrote, "(Inability to say things is) shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language . . . were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness."

To my shame, I admit that I am a constant offender in this area. My arch nemesis is "I mean". Why do I feel compelled to drop these words into every other sentence? Why do I hardly ever notice when I do it?

What are your arch nemeses? What habits are keeping you back from speaking fluent English?
You're kidding me?, a photo by AlexanderVisuals on Flickr.


  1. Anonymous9/05/2011

    Languages never stay the same for too long.

  2. Reading letters written by everyday people (that is, nonwriters) from less than a hundred years ago, it's obvious people do not have or use the same skill with their native language these days. Why is it that in the day everyone receives an education, very few speak or write with the articulation to prove it? I have a theory; one that would be a touchy issue for many people.

    Yet I too am an offender. I loathe the frequency of my use of "like", and my speech is riddled with "ums" and half-formed sentences. Perhaps the trick to curing ourselves is speaking slowly, forming our thoughts before uttering them, and speaking only when we have something to say--in addition to copious amounts of reading. I just have to learn to put my advice into practice. ;)

  3. @ Olivia: Amen! I agree that that is just the way cure ourselves. How hard it is to think before we speak!


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