Please Speak Proper (American) English

Thomas Adcock


Citizens of the United States who happened to be in the Mother Country during the Autumn of 1992, a time when folks back home first began parroting the syntax of Southern California’s dim-bulb Valley Girls, were alarmed by a disturbing headline in The Times of London: ARE AMERICANS, LIKE, STUPID?


Ever since the colonial riot of 1776, upper caste Britons have enjoyed imagining us Yanks as poorly educated, uncouth and badly tailored speakers of preposterously accented English. Since Eisenhower won World War II, our comeback was simple enough: What of it, you buck-toothed bunch of post-imperial toffee snouts? We’ve got money, movies, jazz and practically all the big guns.


Accordingly, envy was easily dismissed. But that headline. How deeply it struck that most fragile of American cultural nerves; the one that twitches with a flutter of inferiority when we hear the English tongue of provenance.


By the comparative sound of us Americans——by our evident rush to the bottom of the linguistic barrel——are we, in fact, a nation of oral imbeciles? And, as suggested by the journal of so much that is right and splendid in the United Kingdom, is the contemporary American lexicon outclassed, at best? The sorry answer echoes from coast to coast.


We are two decades past the indictment of that horrid headline, which appeared over an article about the degeneration of American-style English. Yet I daresay, as toffee snouts are wont to say, that those of us who read the article shall never forget our first pang of national embarrassment.


On returning home from London, we of the embarrassed ranks of Yanks were laid low——helplessly hyper-aware of conversational assault, present and that which would come. In the early ‘90s, the assaults were little more than metaphorical slaps. By the Millennium, however, they had become full-on punches. They are now verbal fists pounding virtual spikes into our heads.


Not long so ago, novelists and poets roamed the streets of urban America to soak up the imaginative tang and casual brilliance of American talk.


Once in New Orleans, in the 1980s, a tour guide’s recommendation of a certain nightclub went, “The boys in the band there play notes so sweet only colored people in Heaven can hear them.” LeRoy “Satchel” Paige, who left us in 1982, was among the greats of American philosophy, as well as baseball. Following his pitching victories for the old St. Louis Browns baseball team, Paige would counsel fans who flocked to him in the streets outside Sportsman’s Park, “Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching.” And from one of Gotham’s finest, “I’m a New York cop. That means I’m a half-honest guy in a city that’s three-quarters crooked.”


Compare the rich, clear-minded talk of the past to what was overheard one recent afternoon in Manhattan:


“Oh…my…god. Like, when I first saw him, eyes-like toadily in love.” (Romantic announcement by thirtysomething woman to female confidante)


“And he was like, ‘Seriously?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and he’s like, ‘No way.’” (Sidewalk business briefing given by young male banker in three-piece suit to Wall Street comrade)


“Like——I like, like the Marx Brothers.” (Preference in classic comedy, stated by young woman to her beau during a crosstown bus ride)


Two of those ear-grinding locutions topped the list of Most Annoying Words and Phrases of 2011, compiled by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. For the third consecutive year, the runner-up was “like.” Likewise, three-in-row in first place was “whatever.”


Soon after the annual Marist poll was published, online solicitations for yet more obtuse Americanisms sprang up. Included in the follow-ups: “At the end of the day,” “Awesome,” “It is what it is,” and “Just sayin’.” And this year, the suddenly ubiquitous sign-off by television newsreaders——“We’ll see you here tomorrow”——delivered without the slightest trace of irony.


Words and phrases are routinely beaten to death in America. When “good” is promiscuously elevated to “awesome,” for instance, nothing may be superlative any longer. Acts and thoughts and discourse proceeded by “like,” meant as an ungrammatical modifier, are by definition unreal. Fewer and fewer words now mean more and more things: think “funky” and “bad.” This is a sure formula for confusion——as well, perhaps, as a dangerous perception of disrespect (as in “dis”). Night after night, the TV chuckleheads of America utter harmonized nonsense, in the apparent belief that they’re making sense.


This in a nation of otherwise innovative people. This in a nation where English——a glorious mongrel tongue with a vocabulary of 1,010,649 words, according to the Global Language Monitor of January 14, 2012——is the dominant means of communication. It is a sorry wonder that here in America, each and every day is saturated with repetitions of “whatever,” “like,”  “y’know,” and “ama-a-a-a-a-zing.” (Currently in vogue: “amazingly awesome.”)


One glimmering hope for literacy is 47-year-old Taylor Mali, a former middle-school teacher turned comedian and self-described “spoken-word artist.” His rant in defiance of our diseased American English has garnered more than 700,000 hits on a YouTube video clip from his 2009 appearance at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York.


From Mali’s satirical performance, and subversive homily:


“Have you noticed? It is somehow uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about. Declarative sentences, so-called because they, you know, declare things to be true——okay? As opposed to other things that are, like, totally, you know, not?


…[I]’m just sayin’, don’t think I’m a nerd just cuz I’ve just, like, noticed this. I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions; I’m just inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty


…We’re the most inarticulate generation to come along since, you know, a long time ago.


I implore you, I entreat you, and I challenge you to speak with conviction. To say what you believe, in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe——because, contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, it is not enough these days to question authority; you have to speak with it, too.”


Enough said.

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