Friday, February 17, 2017

Why Don't We Talk Like That Anymore?

One of the things that disappoints me about our language is that it has become less flowery and expressive than it was 300, or even 150, years ago. We don't use lofty language or elevated speech like they did in high society in the 18th century. Our words are basic and sparse. There's no real magic to our everyday conversations.

I'm not complaining. That's the kind of writing I favor. I've built my entire career on a Hemingway-esque approach to that style, one where "Hemingway-esque" will be the biggest word I use all day.

But I worry that our shift to simpler language has ground down all the flourishes and high points of what our spoken language used to be.

Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare became history's most famous playwright, thanks to phrases like, "If music be the food of love play on." Or when he taught us that "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."

These days, I walk into a burrito joint, and am greeted by my burristo with a thrust-out chin and "S'up, bro?" My daughter and her friends text each other and ask, "wut r u up 2?"

Why don't people speak with style anymore? We don't have to be formal and dignified, but it would be nice for someone to display a little panache once in a while.

Superheroes have panache. From Superman's totally not-self-conscious, "Up, up, and away!" to Underdog's "There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!" to Doctor Strange's "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!" superheroes boldly announced their presence or feelings with authority.

They say words and phrases that people just don't say out loud. If you were surprised by a spider in your bathroom, I don't think you would shout The Beast's, "Oh my stars and garters!" or Herman Melville's "from Hell's heart, I stab at thee!" as you smashed it with a newspaper.

One of my favorite lofty declarationists is the Red Panda, the eponymous character of The Red Panda Adventures, an audio drama podcast from Toronto, Canada.

Every episode, right before intermission, the Red Panda boldly declares his dedication to stopping ne'er-do-wells and evildoers with pronouncements like "The city of Toronto will no longer sleep in fear. The Red Panda swears it!" or "The Mad Monkey will finally learn the true meaning of justice. (dramatic pause) At the hands of The Red Panda!"

I can imagine him on the roof of a Toronto high-rise overlooking his city, staring off into the middle distance, shouting his intention to serve justice with a side of knuckle sandwich.

Meanwhile, his wife and partner, The Flying Squirrel, is standing right there next to him, wondering who he's talking to, and why doesn't he talk that way at home?

"Tonight, the garbage will be taken out to the curb! (dramatic pause) By the hands of The Red Panda!" or "I will pick my socks up off the floor before I go to bed! The Red Panda swears it!"

Sadly, we don't get to do anything like this in real life. No one thinks talking this way is absurd if you're a superhero, but if you do it in everyday conversation, you look like a total idiot.

"I require an oil change and tire rotation. . . on the car of Erik Deckers!"

See, total idiot.

Even villains have swagger, maybe more than the superheroes. Marvel's Doctor Doom sounds so pompous and bombastic, it's a wonder his henchmen don't laugh at him behind his back.

"Who dares disturb the slumbers of Doom?" Even a simple "Who dares—?!" sounds way cooler than a plain old "who put a flaming bag of dog turds on my porch?!"

Since we don't have any real life superheroes or super villains, we're left with bland, uninspired language that only gets a boost when some alien-battling movie president starts shouting about not going quietly into that good night, as inspiring music surges in the background.

Instead, we have politicians who can't speak in complete sentences without ending in incoherent ramblings, or punctuate tweets with an insincere and obnoxious "Sad!" as if they actually had real human emotions.

I'm not suggesting we all start talking like over-the-top Shakespearean actors, but would it really be so bad if we could speak with a little more grandiosity?

"A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! Give me a cup of Coke, boy. And three pork tacos with extra guacamole!"


Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain in both the UK and United States)


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1 comment:

  1. It tis a rainy afternoon in Georgia, I pause to chuckle at the face of your waiter when you order your tacos. Como?

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