The Way We Speak Now    

In the 20’s flappers and their sheiks drove jalopies to gin mills and spent their jack on hooch. Two decades later, bebop jazz musicians said, “I’m hip,” for “I know,” and “That’s cool,” do you dig it?

Then Karouac and Ginsberg turned writing on its rear with fiction and poetry that has outlived them both. Wannabe beatniks answered questions with, “Hey man, like you know what I mean?” Flower Power followed fast, bringing “right on,” “blow my mind” and distrust of anyone over 30.

Most era-inspired colloquialisms and patterns of speech eventually disappear, though some are more tenacious than others. “Awesome” and “dude” are still West Coast standards. Statements that end with a rising inflection haven’t given up the ghost?

Many new mannerisms are introduced on National Public Radio stations, inspiring a vast swath of college-taught copy cats. Younger NPR performers adopted linguistic cliches – “sort of, kind of,” and the now very tired, “you know,” and spread them like wild fire. Also overnight was the appearance of sentences beginning with the word, “so,” whether it belonged there or not. “So Wittgenstein was a kind of philosopher who sort of moved to a Norwegian fjord, you know?

Another affectation that has taken up residence at NPR has nothing to do with an uncommon application of a common word, but with a particular manner of speaking. Suddenly announcers were racing through copy, rattling off words at an incredible speed. It was enabled by taking lightning-fast pauses for breath in non-traditional places. Once upon a time, on-air performers copied conversational speech, pausing naturally between sentences and after commas. Now the newer NPR speakers inhale a noisy gulp of air and read as many words as possible before running out of breath. The result is a panicky monotone delivery that pauses only when it’s breathe or die. An audible gasp occurs at random, somewhere in the next sentence or after “a,” “and” or “the,” or between an adjective and a noun: “The temperature is 76 degrees at John,” – gasp! – “Wayne Airport with a slight chance of,” pant! – “rain.”

The venerable BBC may be the inspiration for NPR’s romance with the fashionably obtuse. In the wee hours, The “BBC World Service” fills empty spaces of much public broadcasting air. In its wisdom, the BBC has populated its staff with some of the most incomprehensible accents on the planet. Those from the British Isles alone are enough to give American heads an ache.

But some of the least likely voices presenting the international news originate in countries that once formed the never-to-be-forgotten British Empire. Mixing upper class English with local patois proves that Monty Python lives.

There is little likelihood that the latest trends in our linguistic evolution will do anything but accelerate to keep pace with technology. So I say, chill, go with the flow. If the latest hip expression isn’t the bee’s knees or groovy or cool, that’s no reason to diss it. Even if it is enough to gag you with a spoon.


Robert Ragaini is a Santa Monica resident