Dreams really do come true at Riverside Green — in my case, it’s the dream of catching up on all the brilliant guest posts submitted in 2018! Thanks to Mozzie for his patience with me, and for his contribution — jb
“And, uhm, it was like so inappropriate?” This is not a verbatim quote. Is there an explanation to the up-talk, verbal pauses, vocal fry, and malapropisms, which are now part of our professional and private lives, outside the broad concept that language evolves over time? I believe that it has to do with the pace at which people attempt to communicate. I believe that people try to talk too quickly and end up saying very little. It almost seems as though people aspire to hold a conversation as if they were spittin’ like Busta Rhymes (or an Aaron Sorkin character, if you prefer). Let’s don the blazer with the elbow patches, set aside the copy of Strunk and White, and consider the elements of contemporary language which some find so unbecoming.
The verbal pause may seem to have an obvious answer; the speaker makes a sound while their mind catches up with what they intend to say. I contend that it has a secondary, defensive purpose. Any break in speech is perceived by other parties in the conversation as an invitation to jump in. The verbal pause says “hold on, I’m not done yet.” The speaker in the moment has no faith in their counterparty to wait for their turn. What interests me is the amalgamation of conjunctive words with verbal pauses. The TV show How I Met Your Mother made fun of “but-uhm” and CarTalk pointed out “and-uh” as part of their routine. Have we reduced our thinking to one clause at a time, and the conjunctive cannot function by itself anymore?
It is difficult to ascertain whether the listener eager to jump in is a response to the incessant speaker, or the other way around. It can, however, partially explain the habit of listening to respond. When watching a round table discussion on TV or several people conversing in a casual setting, there is a good chance at least one of the participants will appear to be on the edge of their seat, perhaps nodding enthusiastically, and taking an audible breath of air as they jump in with a comment of their own. This usually happens the instant the last person stops talking. It is possible that the person who jumped in heard and understood everything the last person said. It is also possible they decided on their comment long before the last person finished talking. Besides the issue of people not listening to what others have to say (listening to comprehend), I think it has changed the way we inflect our speech and finish our thoughts.
If I were to visualize traditional speech inflection of a statement, it would look like this:
The bottom line represents the progression of words, and the top line represents vocal pitch. The graphic for a question would look like this: The pitch keeps going up until the question is formed. Up-talk is the affectation of vocalizing statements in the manner of questions. If you read the first sentence of this piece out loud, that is what it would sound like. I think the reason why many people talk in this way has to do with eager listeners. By changing the inflection, the speaker elicits a response from their counterparties without having to wait for a response. Since the conversational partner is going to react before you’re done talking, why not get the answer sooner as well? I’ve noticed that often people will finish their thoughts with “so.” For example, “The monthly payments for that trim are too high, so.” Normally I would expect more to follow it, but it never comes. Maybe that is why we have “so-uhm” to signal a continuation of thought, which would otherwise be mono-clausal.
If you took singing lessons or watched The Voice, you understand the importance of breath control. Basically, it is the planning of air intake which will not interfere with the delivery of the song. What can you do, however, if you have to keep making sound and not have time to take a breath? You will likely exhibit vocal glottalization, or vocal fry as it commonly referred to. Lacking the power of explanation to properly describe the sound, I will defer to Abby Normal on this. I would like to point out that I’m not focusing on the occasional presence of vocal fry, but the consistent affectation which accompanies every word. It comes back to the theme of trying to speak faster than is suitable, so much so that it becomes a habit.
At a previous job I was in a meeting listening to a c-suite executive give their remarks on the company’s latest financial dealings. The executive said, “It was an eloquent solution.” I know it’s not a fault of my memory, because they used the word “eloquent” at least once more. It may be a case of the musician hitting the wrong note again in an attempt to make the mistake seem deliberate. I never knew business deals could express themselves. I couldn’t ask the executive about their word choice, so I’m going to label it a malapropism, which is the use of a proper word in the wrong context. Another example, although not verbatim: “And we would like to exonerate their accomplishments.” Once in a while I will catch myself, and look up a word in an e-mail before sending it. It is usually a word I hadn’t used in a long time. Most of the time the use is appropriate, but once in a while I’m glad I could catch it. Without the luxury of proof reading and reconsidering word choice, I am not surprised that the mind which is pushed to keep a fast pace is not able to conjure the words it wants.
All of this is not meant to cast aspersions on the way people talk or lament the transformation of language. I noticed these habits over time, which got me to wonder about their cause, and that led me to the conclusion of desired pace. Although I have yet to go to a real track day, I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of virtual laps, and exhibited the same mistakes I would later read about. How is it that a virtual car getting closer in the rear-view mirror can derail my concentration and lead to a race-losing mistake? Or not warming up the digital tires and trying to go faster than what is possible? Practice can improve performance to an extent, but ultimately we are better off keeping it smooth and going at a pace which is appropriate to us.