The inarticulate society

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Aug 15, 2007 12:01 AM

Whatever happened to the once strong, vital, unique American language?

It hasn't been seen in some time. It's been completely obscured by the thicket of "you knows" and "whatevers" and other verbal tics that now cover the language like kudzu.

In recent years, a tumorous mass of text-message techno-lingo has only added another layer to the overgrowth. Sometimes you wonder if there's still a language somewhere underneath all that mess trying to get out - or if it has simply rotted away. And with it, any hope of coherent thought.

Years ago a less-than-great book with a great title - "The Inarticulate Society" by Tom Shachtman - offered three reasons for the general decline of American as she is spoke. He claimed the decline could be traced to "three interlocking cultural courses that influence and exacerbate each other."

The first was the move away from the written word toward other means of communication - telephone, television and popular music.

But the written word has always owed much of its power to the spoken. Even now writers are told to "find a voice." And one test of good prose remains how it sounds when recited aloud.

Demosthenes was scarcely less eloquent because he was an orator, not a writer. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill could hardly be described as inarticulate; yet their most stirring words were delivered not in print but over the radio. If we have grown inarticulate, the fault lies not in our media but in our selves.

The second reason for the decline of American speech, according to Mr. Shachtman, is the lack of good public models in recent times; he cited the preppy awkwardness of the first George Bush and the deceptive glibness of Bill Clinton. The decline continues at an ever greater pace; both of those presidents would now seem veritable Ciceros compared to the dyslexic speech of our current head of state.

But it's not as if American presidents determine how articulate American society will be. Hasn't the model American hero long been the strong, silent type - that is, the inarticulate type - at least since Gary Cooper?

Yup.

So is all this mourning for American articulateness just the usual generational complaint about the younger set?

No, there's something more to it than that. If you seek evidence of the language's decline, just listen to some of the conversations around you in public places.

Or turn on your television. Almost any comedy from the '30s - see the Marx Brothers - sounds so much more articulate than its clumsy counterpart in these verbally soggy times. Those old movies actually have dialogue rather than the simulacrum that so often passes for it today.

Tom Shachtman was getting warm when he blamed the decline of American eloquence on the "marketing mentality." Instead of trying to elevate American discourse, political consultants lower it, Rather than leading public opinion, their candidates are told to reflect it.

The clear and concise Barry Goldwater lost his presidential election - big - and the lesson was not lost on the country's political hucksters: Never let 'em pin you down. Now the aim of political rhetoric is called positioning or triangulation or anything but clarity.

These days the successful political leader is told to avoid specifics and traffic in generalities, the vaguer the better. The object of political speech becomes a kind of glib opacity, to make a speech rather than say anything.

The occasional, premeditated sound bite may then be added to give the consumer the illusion of solidity, the way gravel may be added to chicken feed.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the magisterial arbiter of American eloquence, has noted that "leadership often requires telling the citizenry truths it does not want to hear," and that "one test of the maturity of a people is a willingness to act on facts requiring sacrifice."

Such a definition of leadership might strike modern political operatives as suicidal. They know that the way to win an election is to muffle unpleasant truths, and soften hard principles.

Besides, clarity is hard work. It's so much easier to fuzz the message, and just write around any inconvenient facts that may disrupt the smooth flow of currently fashionable platitudes. See the average American editorial.

This column is an updated version of one that originally appeared November 29, 1995 in the Democrat-Gazette.