This deliberate descent into verbal bedlam first came to my attention when I was interviewing intern candidates for Mayor Edward I. Koch’s speechwriting office in New York City. Until the mid-’80s I had no trouble finding talented students from colleges such as Columbia, NYU, Pace University, and the senior colleges of New York’s City University system. Suddenly, however, it became difficult to recruit articulate candidates with writing ability. Even English majors had withered vocabularies and a hazy grasp of grammar. Many didn’t know a noun from verb and – strangest of all – they struggled mightily to avoid direct speech. In its place they employed self-quoting, playbacks of past conversations, “uptalking” (ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise), and run-on sentences. They seemed to be defending themselves against their own words. I called this evasive dialect Vagueness.
At first I wondered if Vagueness had escaped from the zoo of post-hippy slang. For example, the overuse of “like” as a speech particle goes back to the early 1960s and beyond. But slang usually has an edge. Vagueness was amorphous. Operating as a kind of oral anti-matter, Vagueness camouflaged meaning with childish idioms, vocal intonation, facial expressions and ambiguity. To be understood, Vagueness had to be decoded. It wasn’t as though these students were capable of speaking standard American English but, for some perverse reason, had decided not to. Extended interviews revealed that most of them had no idea how to carry on a lucid conversation.
Like Ms. Wood, I disagree with the author’s suggestion (at the end of his essay) that the decline of clarity and coherence in written and spoken English has run its course. Why would it have? It exists in deadly embrace with a decline in critical thinking generally. Clear thinking can only be expressed in clear language, and the tendency toward vagueness in language exacerbates, and is in turn exacerbated by, a deepening avoidance of, and incapacity for, precision in analytical thought.
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the contradictions and antinomies inherent in Ingsoc’s totalitarian ideology required that its subjects be conditioned to practice doublethink: the ability to hold in one’s mind whatever beliefs are necessary, espousing any or none of them as required, without regard to coherence. Because public utterance is a matter of public record, this means that language must in turn reflect the shape-shifting, foundationless irrationality of doublethink, and so it became Newspeak.
Now some of you will argue that the decline noted here might be due to our insistence on lowering academic standards so as to grant more general access to “higher” education, and no doubt this is true. But what critical analysis led to that? Anyway, one thing leads to another — and as noted below, we have already “progressed” to the point where considerable mastery of doublethink is necessary in order just to get through the day without incident.