There's a reason they call them "talk"
shows. It's not speech– and for certain not eloquent speech.
In the year 1640 Ben Jonson wrote "Talking and eloquence
are not the same: to speak and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks." Jonson would be amazed
to hear what passes for speech today. As he implied, ease of utterance doesn't mean speaking well.
Today, if we wanted
to get along by understanding 80 percent of the English we hear, we could manage with a vocabulary of less than 3,000 words,
and dispense with dictionaries.
Tom Shachtman's looks at our inarticulate culture and offers remedies. He
starts with the problem: "People talk incessantly these days– on television and radio news and talk shows, on the telephone,
at social gatherings– but they say little that is memorable and less that can be called eloquent. Within our families,
though we may keep in touch through pagers and beepers, we cannot find the time and show no inclination for conversation."
are shown a thousand pictures rather then offered a single insightful word. The direction and emphasis of these changes are
in all cases the same: away from precise, reasoned, thoughtfully argued, verbally adroit, idea-laden communication." If we're
not yet an inarticulate society, we are in crisis mode.
He find the culprits in the media and entertainment cultures,
and the garbled political arena. Those are obvious. But he faults the "speech community" in which a baby who is beginning
to talk finds himself in, and the degradation of the English language in schools, where there is a scarcity of articulate
"Colleges are convinced that problems
with verbal facility start in the high schools, while high schools testify that the damage had been done much earlier." Children
begin to acquire their language as soon as it is voiced to them, and, as psychologist Naomi S. Baron writes, the process is
largely complete by the age of five or six.
William Fowler's experiments in early language training make clear that
the key factor is what the adults do. "When properly trained, adults are able to contribute to the child's development by
varying their own vocabulary, syntax, themes, and narratives wile speaking to and with the child." But this can't happen when
children are left with baby-sitters who many not speak standard English.
Schachtman pins blame on jargon-spouting ‘specialists'
in the professions and academia, who seem to take glee in erecting linguistic barriers between themselves and ‘ordinary'
He faults insipid advertising and marketing
campaigns that deliberately bypass reason– and, of course, political leaders who'd rather play demagogues than give
real explanations of their policy choices.
Shachtman finds that all this lowers involvement in public affairs–
which blocks the command of language and the ability to have and to express complex thoughts. Historically, American civic
behavior has been grounded in literacy. No longer.
"Marketing's affinity for propaganda and
polemic speech, whose goal is always to drown out opposing viewpoints, may succeed in capsizing what is left of political
discourse, as well as killing off all true debate."
The insightful Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830's that "Americans
might someday be reduced to occupying themselves only with their own personal and material affairs and not deal with matters
of public importance." In this case "they would feel the loss as a vast void in their lives and would be incredibly unhappy."
He went on to say that "Infantilizing
tactics by our rulers prevent us from being personally concerned with the public interest and from debating the issues among
ourselves." If he were around today, he wouldn't be surprised by the dumbing down of America.
As for the English language,
it altered more rapidly in the 20th than in any previous century, and more rapidly in the last third of the century. Today's
news commentators use a lexicon of about 5,000 words, down from 10,000 words used in 1963. The info-tainment folks use
a vocabulary barely larger than that of Sesame Street. We get sound-bites instead of speeches, advertising blurbs instead
of political substance, and crudeness instead of wit.
The author says the time has come to halt the decline and begin
serious reform. He believes that eloquence can be 'rehabilitated' through the constructive use of media together with political
and educational reform.
He sees computer networks as a tool to
"facilitate, rather than short circuit public debate on important issues." He sees television as a source of intelligent interaction
(not mind-numbing drivel). In the end he hopes we will each put a premium on the proper use of English in the media, classroom,
and the campaign stump-- and restore the health of our public discourse.