Alarming News: I like Morgan Freeberg. A lot.
Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler: We were following a trackback and thinking "hmmm... this is a bloody excellent post!", and then we realized that it was just part III of, well, three...Damn. I wish I'd written those.
Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler: ...I just remembered that I found a new blog a short while ago, House of Eratosthenes, that I really like. I like his common sense approach and his curiosity when it comes to why people believe what they believe rather than just what they believe.
Brutally Honest: Morgan Freeberg is an intriguing guy...[he] asks great questions and answers others with style, flair, reason and wit. On the blogroll he goes. Make him a part of your regular blogospheric reading. I certainly will.
Brutally Honest: Morgan Freeberg is brilliant.
Common Sense Junction: Misha @ Anti-Idiotarian never ceases to amaze me. He keeps finding other good blogs. I went over to A.I. this morning for my daily Misha fix and he had found this guy named Morgan Freeberg in Fair Oaks, California, that has a blog, House of Eratosthenes. Freeberg says its "The Blog That Nobody Reads" but it may now become the blog that everybody reads.
Jaded Haven: Good God, Morgan, you cover a topic from front to back with a screwy thoroughness I find mind boggling. I'm in awe of your thought proccesses, my friend, you're an exceptional talent. You start by throwing in the kitchen sink, tie in someone's syphilitic uncle, bend around a rip tide of brilliance and bring it all home in a neat, diamond dripping package of an exceptionally readable moment of damn fine wordsmithing. I love reading you.
Mein Blogovault: Make "the Blog that No One Reads" one of your daily reads.
Philmon: When Morgan meanders, stick with him - he's got a point and it'll be worth it in the end. He's not a hit-and-run snarky quip kind of guy. The pieces all fall into place like tumblers in a lock and bang! He's opened a cognative door for you.
Rightlinx: Morgan at House of Eratosthenes is one of the best writers out there. I read him nearly every day because he manages to provide an interesting perspective, even though I don't always agree.
Poetic Justice: Cletus! Ah gots a laiv one fer yew...
What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
The decline and fall of American English, and stuff
I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.
Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century. Squirrel Woman sounded like a high school junior, but she appeared to be in her mid-forties, old enough to have been an early carrier of the contagion. She might even have been a college intern in the days when Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out assault on American English.
My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.
Then came 1985.
The first applicant was a young man from NYU. During the interview, he spiked his replies so heavily with “like” that I mentioned his frequent use of the word. He seemed confused by my comment and replied, “Well . . . like . . . yeah.” Now, nobody likes a grammar prig. All’s fair in love and language, and the American lingo is in constant motion. “You should,” for example, has been replaced by “you need to.” “No” has faded into “not really.” “I said” is now “I went.” As for “you’re welcome,” that’s long since become “no problem.” Even nasal passages are affected by fashion. Quack-talking, the rasping tones preferred by many young women today, used to be considered a misfortune.
In 1985, I thought of “like” as a trite survivor of the hippie sixties. By itself, a little slang would not have disqualified the junior from NYU. But I was surprised to hear antique argot from a communications major looking for work in a speechwriting office, where job applicants would normally showcase their language skills. I was even more surprised when the next three candidates also laced their conversation with “like.” Most troubling was a puzzling drop in the quality of their writing samples. It took six tries, but eventually I found a student every bit as good as his predecessors. Then came 1986.
As the interviews proceeded, it grew obvious that “like” had strengthened its grip on intern syntax. And something new had been added: “You know” had replaced “Ummm . . .” as the sentence filler of choice. The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding “and stuff” at the end. Their writing samples were terrible. It took eight tries to find a promising intern. In the spring of 1987 came the all-interrogative interview. I asked a candidate where she went to school.
“Columbia?” she replied. Or asked.
“And you’re majoring in . . .”
All her answers sounded like questions. Several other students did the same thing, ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise. Something odd was happening. Was it guerrilla grammar? Had college kids fallen under the spell of some mad guru of verbal chaos? I began taking notes and mailed a letter to William Safire at the New York Times, urging him to do a column on the devolution of coherent speech. Undergraduates, I said, seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.
By autumn 1987, the job interviews revealed that “like” was no longer a mere slang usage. It had mutated from hip preposition into the verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today. Vagueness was on the march. Double-clutching (“What I said was, I said . . .”) sprang into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events by narrating both sides of a conversation (“So I’m like, ‘Want to, like, see a movie?’ And he goes, ‘No way.’ And I go . . .”), made their entrance. I was baffled by what seemed to be a reversion to the idioms of childhood. And yet intern candidates were not hesitant or uncomfortable about speaking elementary school dialects in a college-level job interview. I engaged them in conversation and gradually realized that they saw Vagueness not as slang but as mainstream English. At long last, it dawned on me: Vagueness was not a campus fad or just another generational raid on proper locution. It was a coup. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames.
Hat tip to Wheat & Weeds.
Can’t just leave this up without saying a word about Gerard Van der Leun, and how he pegged this a few years back with his observations about the American Castrati, which I snapped up just as fast as I could.
If you focus on it, you realize that you hear this voice every day if you bounce around a bit in our larger cities buying this or ordering that, and in general running into young people in the “service” sector — be it coffee shop, video store, department store, boutique, bookstore, or office cube farm. It’s a kind of voice that was seldom heard anywhere but now seems to be everywhere.
You hear this soft, inflected tone everywhere that young people below, roughly, 35 congregate. As flat as the bottles of spring water they carry and affectless as algae, it tends to always trend towards a slight rising question at the end of even simple declarative sentences. It has no timbre to it and no edge of assertion in it.
As far as I’m concerned, people can talk in whatever way they like. My objection begins when it starts to affect how they think. This, too, I’d allow to pass without too much critique, if only the flaccid thinking could be somehow walled off, incapable of having too much of an effect on myself or on others. Which seems to be the intention anyway, isn’t it? Isn’t that the motivation? Fear of declaring anything too conclusively, and of having any kind of irreversible effect on anything? Like…y’know…and stuff?
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