Democratization of Language

Subtitle: Have you ever seen the phrase “piacular recompense” and the word “stuff” (the noun variety) in the same sentence?

After Tuesday there will be no more President Bush press conferences. During these linguistic spectacles, the Harvard- and Yale-educated oil-tycoon scion sometimes dropped the “g’s” off his gerunds and uttered phrases such as “We’re gonna get ‘em.” And then he’d string together a few Latinate words to describe the dangerous situation in Pakistan. Then he’d say something like “We’re deeply committed” or “we’re deeply involved” and he seemed to believe that if he gave that word “deeply” sufficient bodily or facial or gesticulatory gravitas, it could mean more than it does, which is essentially nothing.

Bush’s modulation between high and low language is what allowed him to win the election against Al Gore Jr., I contend. Gore always sounds wonkish, and when he did attempt to employ folksy language, it seemed like a pose. Al Gore must have sounded, to some Americans, like the English teacher who failed them but called them “dude.”

Aside from getting him elected, Bush’s soprano-to-bass grammatical seismograph also, I further contend, accounts for his charm and the fact that he survived 8 years without being impeached.

One might argue that President Bill Clinton shared this skill, but Clinton leaned on his accent to undercut his vocabulary, throwing in a few Goshes and Gollys for effect. (Can you believe Clinton pronounces “program” as pro’-grum? When he says “missle pro’-grum,” its referent sounds about as deadly as some hare-brained Barney Fife-ean plot. Clinton had a genius all his own, of course.) Bush uses words, and no one has ever moved more effectively than he between technical jargon, marketing-speak, sloganese, patriotic bromide, southern cant, and officio-political discourse. I don’t believe Bush necessarily thought this out, it’s more like he’s a perfect linguistic man for his age. Karl Rove recognized this and shaped the whole DC-outsider-simple-Cowboy-Jesus-freak narrative to fit the man’s talents, kind of the way a defensive coordinator might switch to a 3-4 to take advantage of an ox-like nose tackle and a couple of lightning-quick defensive ends.

What is our linguistic moment? The last several decades have witnessed explosive developments in word processing, the capacity of machines, digital communications of all kinds, networking tools such as Facebook and search engine optimization protocols, immigration, the simultaneous formation of media conglomerates and explosion of media alternatives, increasingly absurd differences between the wealth of the rich and the destitution of the poor, the rise in arcane academic writing, the number of scribbling corporate lawyers, and we can’t forget the straws that stir the drink—marketing and spin, those twin augers of sound and fury.

The linguistic effects of these explosions are profound, both politically and personally—and maybe impossible to define. One thing one can say about America is that there is a lot of noise out there, a torrent of it, and we all drown in it every day. Certain types of language are so ubiquitous that they’re starting to wear ruts in the earth, and I believe the result is that anyone speaking a single tongue becomes automatically a parody of himself. The computer nerd, the guy who likes to hit on women, the right-wing talkshow host who tells it like it is, the feminist, the corporate PR person, the black guy CNN brings on to talk about racism, the cantankerous sportswriter, Oprah, the idiotic reality show judge and the angry pompous reality show judge. Though Americans like these people, they’re unelectable, because they are not free. George W. Bush was, if nothing else, linguistically free.

On a related note: Have you noticed that Tina Fey’s lampooning of Sarah Palin is not actually lampoon? It’s just imitation, in my view. There’s nothing to parody! Palin is already parody. But if Palin learns to mix in some 3-syllable words with her references to high school hockey and her stupid winking charm, watch out. If she learns that the language of real Americans is polyglot, we could be in trouble.

What’s changed since Chevy Chase fell off a ladder while decorating a Christmas tree as Gerald Ford? What’s changed since Dan Ackroyd spewed arcane nuclear engineering factoids at a press conference as Jimmy Carter? Everything has changed. We’re in a different age, language-wise, and the ‘70s might as well be Paleolithic. The only thing that generates interest nowadays, for comedy or political glory, is the violent yoking together of signifiers from disparate dialects.

No one I know absorbed and refashioned our compendium of tongues better then David Foster Wallace. His Infinite Jest and other works are our tower of Babel. I’ll end with an explication of two graphs from his essay on tennis star Tracy Austin. Here are the graphs:

Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.

Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.

These graphs are careful, accurate, precise and conversational. The bald folksiness of his opening four-word sentence indicates he’s not trying to trick readers, or patronize them. The word “totally” in his second sentence means what a valley girl understands it to mean: something like “completely,” but the ability to stretch out the long “o” sound gives it its special perfect campiness. The example vocations are perfectly chosen since a plumber and a managerial accountant are each basically the apotheosis of their respective collar colors. If you could overhear Condoleezza Rice and Sam Spade’s barroom conversation, you might get the breathtakingly beautiful difference in tone encapsulated in the twin phrases “competitive superiority” and “hard data.” This is kind of the point: you can overhear such a conversation because I myself know of a saloon that’s often showing old black-and-white movies on one flat-screen tv, CNN on another, and the Ravens-Colts game on a third. We live in a flux of language, a torrent, and for anything to sound “American,” it must account for this torrent and the ability of millennial American English to be all things at once. In terms of the ability to account for the torrent, no one’s language does so more effectively or entertainingly or energetically than Wallace’s.

Six-year-olds use the word “plus” to mean also or in addition, not adults. Certainly not adults who know of Chagall and Euclid. When DFW uses the word “inspiring” he’s deliberately thumbing his nose at what “inspiring” or “inspirational” has come to mean—some hackneyed story about a triple-amputee becoming a senator or rowing across the Atlantic in a specially constructed single oar kayak. Inspiring in its classical sense, actually has to do with breathing divine oxygen, being infused with the spirit of the gods. The next sentence has perfect rhythm, and adroitly employs parallel inversions and a delayed predicate. The sentence after, with its conversational tone and prepositional ending, perfectly undercuts the Baroque and overwrought one before. Then a short sentence that works like a mathematical equation: subject equals (the being verb) predicate. Then two longer sentences that elaborate on the equation.

There is perhaps something deep-down in every American that makes us think we’re free, or that freedom is our birthright. As always, seeing the shackles of servitude—in our case, the utter inability to escape from all the yammering noise—in a new way remains the only possibility for escape.

1 comment

  1. M McNamara says:

    Most of the Barney Fife plots turned out fine, and his heart was always in the right place. Hare-brained is kinda harsh. It’s true that he was lucky to have Andy around, but for a two man team, they did very nicely. Bush, Clinton, Obama, Gore all have a lot more help. (Barney had a nice way with language btw)

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