The decline of language is today’s topic. A big thanks to guest blogger Sandra Rockman for her astute observations.
Kind of: somewhat; rather; almost
Sort of: somewhat
Like: similar to; somewhat resembling
(Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)
It’s kind of, like, contagious, don’t you think, this new epidemic of our, you know, current spoken English? I’ve dubbed it “weakspeak,” and it’s sort of everywhere now.
Like, with the exception of well-edited quotes in newspapers or magazine pieces, hardly a sentence passes the lips of anyone—friend, politician, expert, speaker, including my own, I’m afraid—without the additions of “kind of,” “sort of,” “like,” and the like. And don’t let’s forget our new penchant for beginning sentences with the all-purpose, clarifying “I mean” before we’ve even given anyone a chance for a misunderstanding, you know?
“It’s a kind of a trench coat sort of a thing,” I overheard from a man at the next table in the coffee shop. I couldn’t picture what type of garment he might be attempting to describe. Or maybe it was simply a trench coat.
Miss O’Connor, my fourth-grade teacher from 1956, would sort of turn over in her grave. She taught and required clear diction and uncluttered expression. That prim middle-aged “maiden lady”—in her spotless schoolmarm uniform of white blouse and black skirt—referred to all the ums, uhs, and you knows added to our speech patterns as “superfluous ejaculations.” No current educator would dare use a term like that, particularly in a PG-rated elementary school English class.
To drive the point home, once every month at P.S. 164, Dr. Karow, our principal, paid each classroom a surprise visit. We lined up in front, backs to the blackboard, like pint-sized suspects. Dr. Karow would sit with crossed arms and stern face to hear us recite from memory, our tiny voices stumbling over multi-syllabic portions of the Gettysburg address, the Preamble to the Constitution, or Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty…” speech. In the middle of a sentence, the principal would point to the next student, who would have to continue the oration seamlessly. No superfluous ejaculations allowed; we were expected to be word perfect.
Listening to our media icons as far afield as Dr. Phil to Terry Gross, both interviewer and interviewee unconsciously erode their strong interrogations and responses with the kind of, like, and sort of masking that few seem to notice anymore. Like kind of tragic, when a Marine dies in Iraq, or sort of specific, when the NASA engineer attempts to define a problem on the Discovery shuttle mission, our liquefied English lexicon has become a glass of bold Syrah dulled by adding water. I mean, it’s like a wanton dilution that the writer in me kind of wants to resist, you know?
So lo, these fifty years later…
Dr. Karow and Miss O’Connor have come a-haunting. With nostalgia and a twinge of reverence, I remember and appreciate Miss O’Connor each time I prepare to speak before an audience. And that dictionary containing the definitions above, a broken-spined keepsake, was a sixth-grade graduation gift dedicated to my school service and autographed by the intimidating principal who handed me the book and kissed me kindly on the cheek.
As a wordsmith, I can’t say for certain whether our spoken word and expressions have assumed some sort of inappropriately hallowed stature or whether, middle-aged now myself, I’ve just become a more finicky communicator.
All I can say is this: the way we talk now, you know, it’s kind of tragic.
Sandra Rockman presents acting, playwriting, and improvisation classes and workshops and produces theatrical events, showcases, and plays.