Among the Intellectualoids

Our Inarticulate Future

Hollywood takes notice of our degradation of language.

By 1.17.07

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Having exhausted the spring break and amateur stripper genres, Hollywood has at long last taken notice of the state of the English language. In films like Idiocracy (called by Slate's film critic "The most stirring defense of traditional values since Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France") and the television series Deadwood language is at the fore; that is, what language says about society and how it has been allowed to deteriorate.

Nowhere is this concern with language better demonstrated than in the new Mike Judge film Idiocracy. Judge's film depicts a dystopian future where language has degenerated into a medley of ghetto/hillbilly/valley girl-speak and grunts. The film's conceit is simple: the smart and affluent people have ceased procreating -- whether because of their busy careers or plain selfishness -- leaving the field open for the ultra-fertile knuckledraggers, who tend to produce an overabundance of offspring with an endless string of partners, until there is no one left with an IQ over 80. When an Army enlisted man -- frozen as part of a military experiment -- awakens some 500 years hence, he is ridiculed and pummeled for speaking in complete and coherent sentences.

This is indeed our future. Successful, college-educated women do have far fewer children than their less educated counterparts. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, "A woman's educational level is the best predictor of how many children she will have." A Phillip Longman study of a group of college-educated women reported a fertility rate of only 0.37 children per woman, which would mean in the long term a halving every 12 years or a decline of 99 percent within a human lifetime. A continued increase in the percentage of women going to college or graduate school may well push this rate down further, Longman warns. Men too seem to be intimidated by highly intelligent women and often "marry down."

But one does not have to time travel to the future to hear the barnyard language depicted in Judge's film. One has only to turn on the television. It can be found on shows like Jerry Springer and The Wire, where even the cops seem unable to express themselves without generous recourse to the all purpose F-word, which substitutes for noun, verb, adjective, adverb, any part of speech the speaker is unable to articulate.

The HBO series Deadwood is likewise compelling for its use of language. In Deadwood class distinctions are marked by dress, profession, living conditions, but most of all by language. The speech of the lower classes is raw, obscene, and hopelessly ungrammatical, while the few upper class denizens (who never swear nor curse) speak the impeccable English of the Victorian parlor. Once the educated classes were taught that cursing was for the low and vulgar, while they -- schooled on the verse of Latin and Elizabethan poets -- learned to respect the power, beauty, and subtleties of language. It was a time when the pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

IN RETROSPECT THE language of Deadwood and the Old West seems tame by today's standards. Deadwood's writers were therefore obliged to use today's most base vulgarisms in order to convey the depravity of the language. Otherwise >Deadwood's tough guys would have sounded like pansies. USA Today counted at least 63 mentions of the F-word in one random episode of Deadwood. (Historians seem to agree that the swearing in Deadwood is rather extreme and not historically accurate. For instance, the F-word was not used for emphasis until some twenty or more years after the events portrayed on the series.) Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg notes that before the 1920s swearing usually meant taking the Lord's name in vain. It was not until that lost its bite in an increasingly secular post-World War I society that those in search of more scandalous curses went -- so to speak -- from the Bible to the bedroom and bath.

Since the 1920s cursing has become more and more a part of the popular culture, more, if you will, mainstream. That coupled with the '60s attitude in education that grammar "doesn't allow us to express our inner souls," that grammar is in fact a class warfare tool used by the ruling elite to oppress the lumpen proletariat, may have placed the English language beyond redemption. This suits some linguists fine.

David Crystal, in his new book How Language Works, calls prescriptivists (those who would uphold grammatical standards) "linguistic Stalinists" and insists that "Language change is inevitable, continuous, universal and multidirectional. Languages do not get better or worse when they change. They just -- change." So back off. Even if those changes lead to a future where communication resembles the squeals and grunts of the Neanderthals portrayed in Idiocracy or an episode of The Howard Stern Show, even if it leaves mankind with the inability not only to examine and express complex ideas and concepts, but to express anything beyond mere animalistic impulses. But, as the linguists say, that is okay, because language change is good. Well, not good, but not bad either. Or as our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren might say: "Uhhhn!"

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.