The Decay of Meaning in Spoken American English
It is customary in nonfiction books to bolster arguments with citations, chapter notes, footnotes and quotations from the so-called experts. This practice tracks its academic counterpart and seemingly fortifies a book’s premise from accusations of having been written by an illiterate or dilettante. Yet these days, almost anyone with on-line access can cherry-pick sources by the hundreds while ignoring many hundred others that are firmly contradictory to their claims. Worse, clothing a document in the vestments of academic proceedings does not guarantee the kind of balance that is required of convincing, scholarly work.
In commonly accepted practice, popular nonfiction books never pass through the process of peer-review. Often they see scant editorial oversight of the sort that would otherwise discipline the views of their authors.
Most of us who have spent any time in academia understand a few basic limits that are rarely imposed on nonfiction tomes vying for income rather than validity. First, contrary to customary usage, there are no experts. When cornered by their colleagues, most university faculty, however great their egos, will eventually admit that the most rigorous individual is a scholar, a student of the problem, not an expert. They will each have a view, and their views may – and often do – differ. But it is not on the authority of the scholar that arguments advance. It is by the existence of evidence, and how elegantly that evidence is aligned in support of their case.
The facts never speak for themselves. Facts resemble soldiers in the armies of argument. Mustered in one way they can overwhelmingly defeat an adversarial argument. Aligned another way, they can often equally well defend an opposing view. Sometimes when all the facts are aligned on the battlefield of dispute, the outcome is inconclusive.
More important in attempting to be persuasively correct is not a tidal wave of carefully selected studies but the ability of the argument itself to satisfy four requirements: (1) Does the position taken fairly represent the subject studied, as far as current facts are known?; (2) Does the argument presented satisfy Okham’s razor. That is, does it explain in the most straightforward way – without special pleading or exclusion of examples to the contrary – all of the facts as they known?; (3) Is the argument developed presented so that contrary or opposing analyses are given fair weight and considerations?; and finally (4) has the treatise been critically reviewed by parties unfriendly to its conclusions, and have these objections been fairly addressed?
These are the constraints that will be observed during the exploration of the deterioration of clarity in contemporary spoken English in the early 21st century. The examinations and arguments developed, as well as the questions asked, will be guided by the approach adopted by Albert Einstein in preparing his landmark paper on special relativity in 1905, and for analogous reasons.
Einstein could scarcely have bolstered his theory with citations from the professional scientific literature, since no one had ever before seriously considered a physical universe in which time was relative. The transformational paper, which unseated Isaac Newton’s prevailing view of mass, gravity, space and time, was a scant five pages long, developed on calculations and original arguments, and – contrary to conventions still observed in scientific articles today – entirely free of any professional references at all. Either it was right or wrong, but not as supported or dismissed by existing authority. In the fortress of an antithetical paradigm were housed a legion girded in a traditional view in which was vested a soaring ivory tower of egos. How could an uncredentialed Swiss patent clerk hope to be taken seriously against such daunting brainpower and universal consensus? And if science had begun to overtake religion as the basis for beliefs, its structure or hierarchy was hauntingly familiar, resting on the same weight of lofty authority, this time in mortar boards and gowns rather than miters and cassocks.
Throughout his life, Einstein had little reverence for authority over calculations. But in an end note to his landmark paper on special relativity, he did thank his friend Michelle Besso for clarifying discussions. And it often does help for someone to have an open, yet critical ear.
Unremarkably, despite its display of revolutionary genius, Einstein’s work on special relativity created little immediate stir among academic physicists of the early 20th century. They were, as mentioned, all firmly holed up in the castle keep, defending the infallibility of the imaginary cosmic medium, the luminiferous aether. Although quite literally substanceless, the aether was the contemporary intellectually immovable object, the concept on which egos had been bolstered, careers established, papers published, and endowed chairs granted. As often in retrospect of so many obvious errors, that basis for defense of the aether seems to us today quite a remarkable deficiency. Despite lacking a shred of evidence of its existence, the luminiferous aether had lulled intellectual inquiry into the counterpart mental state induced by the organic chemical of the same name.
Finally, inevitably and humanly, the sharpened knives came out and physics professors, including some of Einstein’s former instructors at Zurich, began disparaging the relativity paper not on the merit of its logic or mathematical underpinnings, but as the fantasy of a mere patent clerk scribbling on the backs of envelopes in provincial Bern. You know, the old ad hominem attack.
Which can be a slippery trek to undertake, as this brief joke illustrates: A motorist suffered a flat tire outside a lunatic asylum. Having little previous experience with flat tires, he studies his car manual, popped the hub cap and then started to remove the lug nuts. The problem was the pitch of the road, which faced a storm sewer opening. Whenever he placed a lug nut down, it started to roll away toward the sewer. Swearing as he stopped the runaway nuts, he turned to see an inmate of the nut house watching him. When eye contact was made, the inmate said, “Why not just turn to hub cap into a bowl, and keep the lug nuts there until you get the spare onto the bolts.” Amazed, the motorist saw right away that t his was the solution and asks, “You seem extremely bright. What are doing in this place?” The inmate just shrugged and said, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.” To which I can only add, ditto.
In both the spirit and form of Einstein, I’ll examine the intent of human language and then hold up its current American idiom against such simple tests as clarity, precision, succinctness, and higher standards like eloquence. What a careful consideration of current usage will reveal is departure from the communication of meaning into what can most simply be called tribal noise, which I’ll define as the projections of sounds where the purpose of speaking them is for the speakers to vanish into patterns where sameness confers an immediate sense of belonging.
If true, this means that social belonging, not the transmission of novel ideas, has become the preoccupying concern of what is said, and how it is said. To the extent that original thought is evidenced by original expression, the ability of the modern mind to express original and meaningful thought appears to be in rapid decline. A detailed discussion of how this conclusion was reached will follow in later blogs. Much, as Einstein might have admired, will be in the form of thought experiments, assuming that what we say ought to be thoughtful, or not said at all.