Infantilizing the Culture

Thus, pointing becomes pointing out via stress and pitch. Jumping with delight or exasperation manifests as degrees of tonal inflection. Caressing or stroking appears as lilt or melody, as every mother and lover knows. Signals of perplexity modelled on the physical plane as knitting or scratching the brows, sudden stasis, etc. re-emerge as pure vocality, pausing, slowly emitting breath, low humming, and so on. This is an entirely normal process, but in the current matrix of vocal transference it has come to assume an excessive and inappropriate place in normal conversation. Thus the spatial and gestural modes of approach, such as reaching out or touching to ensure that the other is fully present, attentive, and answerable, have begun to resurface as a question where none is properly required. Today, the question often functions as what its grammatical marker looks like, a hook.

An instance of what I’m getting at — to focus on this latter facet of address — is  familiar to everyone: the interrogative voice rise injected into normal declarative speech. Young people — and not only young people — have become increasingly prone to complete their statements as if they were asking a question rather than reporting or describing a state of affairs. Here is a typical conversation I overheard in the hallways of my college:

--My teacher in Social Studies? (rise). He have me a 92? (rise). I didn’t really study very hard? (rise).

--Well, what were you doing? (genuine question).

--Well, I was so nervous? (rise). I just kinda did nothing? (rise).

What is even more disturbing, this kinda thing has become common among adults as well.

What has happened since the indulgent and efflorescent Sixties, with the enormous expansion of the media and the decay of what Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death calls the Second Curriculum (the discipline of mind founded on order, precedence, delay of gratification), is that our young people tend to remain for ever longer periods confined to the linguistic nursery. When they eventually do emerge, they are barely able to toddle through a written sentence or to utter verbal sequences with even minimal lucidity.

In other words, our kids have not managed to outgrow the system of tonal mimicry, the analogue in speech of gestural simulation in play, which permeates their verbalizing. The ratio between tonal facsimile and verbal symbol, mimesis and representation, has altered dramatically in favor of the former over the latter. Speech among the young has come to resemble vocal gesture binding a society of defective communicators, who continue to replicate the effigies of the play function instead of scaling the plane of the sign function.

If we would only listen carefully to what passes as conversation among our kids and students, we would quickly discover the extent to which forms of play-mimicry, body language, and tonal duplication of gesture have come to dominate ordinary speech. Speaking increasingly simulates acting, with movement, inflexion, and impersonation rather than competent articulation carrying a major share of the meaning. Notice the hand, with thumb and little finger extended, raised to the ear when one expresses the intent to make, or the wish to receive, a phone call. A verbal statement appears to be inadequate or unconvincing. Not that there is all that much to say, which may explain why truncated spelling and 140 characters would appear to suffice and Twitterdom looks like the future. Naturally, every generation develops its own speech codes, slanguage, “twenty-three skiddoo” palaver and verbal fashions, but what we are now observing is a perceptible regression in both thought and verbalization.

In his Problems of General Linguistics, the French semiotician Emile Benveniste argues: “It is in discourse, realized in sentences, that language is formed and takes shape.” The trouble is that we no longer begin, neither in the home nor in the school, to teach the conventions of good conversation and the protocols of writing, that is, the elocution of the mind. Moreover, once the student embarks upon formal education, we do not teach writing as an ordering of thought and expression with its own laws of development, differing in essence from the usages of casual, unreconstructed, and reactive speech. Writing is not a cloning device for reproducing spoken language. Writing is a more stringent and rule-governed way for processing experience. If not taught as such, written language struggles into existence as a negligible and pathetic thing, a troubling grotesquery unable to escape the fetal dependence on its source. No less than the spoken word must leave behind the play-and-gesture incubator, so the written word needs to transcend its origin in the spoken word.