Paul Greenberg

What ever happened to the once strong, vital, unique American language? It hasn't been seen in some time. Maybe because it's been completely covered by the thicket of "you knows" and "whatevers" and various other verbal tics. The way kudzu, given sufficient time and neglect, will completely hide a great oak.

H.L. Mencken, who wrote his authoritative three-volume study "The American Language" in between his provocative columns for the Baltimore Sun, would be hard put to recognize the once vibrant American vernacular.

In recent years, a tumorous mass of text-message techno-lingo has only added another layer to the overgrowth covering a once muscular, colorful, ever alive and adaptable language -- until you have to wonder if there's still a language somewhere underneath all of that mass trying to get out. Or has it simply rotted away?

To read some of the alleged prose that crosses an editor's desk is like trying to follow the "deliberations" of Congress when one of its more verbally challenged members is wrestling with what remains of the English language. (The language usually loses, two out of three times.)

A whole plague of talking points, PowerPoint presentations, and TED talks now seems to have replaced anything as simple, profound and moving as the spoken word. It's a step down. Way down. Someone once said there is nothing so fascinating as listening to an intelligent, well-educated man, or woman, just thinking aloud -- without props, audio-visual "aids," and other substitutes for real thought. Margaret Thatcher could do it in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill at the dinner table, Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio, Ronald Reagan before the television cameras. But such speakers grow as rare as they were engaging.

Is all this mourning for American articulateness just the usual generational grousing 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 (and often enough vulgar) times. Those old movies actually have dialogue rather than the simulacrum that passes for it today, when obscenities are used as a substitute for wit.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.