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Left Speechless

In our tone-deaf culture, eloquent language has been lost

October 12, 2003|John H. McWhorter | John H. McWhorter is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and associate professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. His latest book is "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care."

We are a nation of sound bites. "I will not fail you," said Arnold Schwarzenegger upon winning the California governor's race last week. " ... Bring 'em on," said the president, in his most-quoted line in recent months about the war in Iraq. "I know the people of this state are angry. I've gotten the message," Gray Davis intoned from the stump.

Our leaders are certainly talking, but here's what we don't hear, ever, from either the administration or its critics: eloquent speeches laying out nuanced positions with rhetorical finesse. We get quick hits on talk shows, lines tossed off for the peanut gallery. Whatever happened to careful, burnished language carefully crafted to sway those of other minds? Surely our leaders could do better.

Or could they? Taking a broad view, I suspect that culture is as much the culprit as any intransigence on their part. Really, to expect a high level of public dialogue from any modern administration or its critics would be like expecting them to get to work by horse and carriage. Today's politicians are the product of a new America, where carefully constructed rhetoric is as against the cultural grain as lobster Newburg at a dinner party.

We have become a country with less love of its own language than almost any other in human history. Russian students can rattle off strophes of Pushkin as readily as we can sing the lyrics to "Gilligan's Island." A Turkish friend of mine recounts how in Turkey she and her mother would marvel at how beautifully a cousin spoke Turkish -- impossible to imagine in American English. Even in Britain, a popular radio show called "Just a Minute" challenges contestants to orate on given subjects for 60 seconds "without hesitation, repetition or deviation." They can do it. Here in America these days, we just talk.

This lack of eloquence is not a matter of being American per se: America was once a very different place. Think about Nov. 19, 1863. Not only did Abraham Lincoln deliver his brief but magnificent Gettysburg Address, a masterpiece of conciseness and persuasiveness. Even before Lincoln spoke that day, Edward Everett, a politician, administrator and well-known orator, spoke for two whole hours to a rapt audience. The content of the speech itself was nothing for the ages, but its language was splendid, beginning with these words: "Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year ... I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature."

Everett was a huge hit that day. But would anyone stand still and listen to oratory like that today? Sure, Jesse Jackson is an "orator," but in language that manipulates with short sentences and punchy rhythms. Everett used language pitched in an elaborate style worked out on paper first. The fact that ordinary people swelled to him showed that they loved their language in a way that is foreign to us now.

Of course, Everett's language appears "overblown," but that's just it. In much of the world, even today, people cherish similarly "high" renditions of their language broken out like champagne on ceremonial occasions. Yet what is "authentic" in Italy -- where public debate is still often carried out in self-consciously elegant language -- is "corny" to us. So corny that on Sept. 11, 2002, there was no official speech commemorating the first anniversary of one of our nation's worst tragedies. We just heard the names of the victims read off a list.

This would have been unthinkable at Gettysburg in 1863. It would have been unthinkable in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson traveled the country giving a speech that, though it changed few minds, defended his League of Nations concept in an elegant, almost Socratic, point-by-point style. This eloquence lasted into the 1960s, when at the podium President John F. Kennedy spoke instead of talked. "It is one of the ironies of our time," he said in his 1961 State of the Union address, "that the techniques of a harsh and repressive system should be able to instill discipline and ardor in its servants -- while the blessings of liberty have too often stood for privilege, materialism and a life of ease." No current American public figure could ever even venture communication pitched this high and expect to remain in office. Compare Kennedy's language to President Bush's four decades later: "We have our marching orders: My fellow Americans, let's roll." Cute, but different. If Lincoln had ended the Gettysburg Address with "Let's roll," he might well have been assassinated two years earlier.

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