It’s Like, a Communicative Stupor


“See you again,” said the merchant of a store in Kunsan City, Republic of Korea, as I was leaving his business. Apparently, he was saying goodbye, but I didn’t know that at the time. “Maybe,” I said, “or maybe not,” and walked out. It was 1994, and I was starting a one year tour of duty in South Korea, where I also took a part time job teaching English to classes of Korean adults and children. It was an amazing year as I came to appreciate their culture and their devotion to education in general. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many of the people I met in that part of the world wanted desperately to master the English language.

I particularly missed my old students while at a truck stop in Tuscaloosa, AL, yesterday. Three young ladies were standing behind the cash register. I think they were being paid to talk amongst themselves, because they paid precious little attention to the customers who were trying to make purchases. I waited in line until it was my turn to stand next to the counter and listen to them for awhile. From the front of the line, I could see that two of the young women were listening intently to the third, nodding their heads in unison as she explained the following story: “I was down wit ma home boy, and he was like pphhhhttttttt. And I was like, for real? And he was like, I dunno. And I was like, na-unnh.” And then, fearing that rigor-mortis would soon set in, the young lady accepted payment for my coffee so that I could like, leave and the next person in line could like, listen to this captivating tale of like, utter incoherence.

I wish I could say that my experience was unusual. For that matter, I wish I could say it was nonexistent. But it seems all too common, and it does not prefer one region over another. Ignorance has more than one accent, and comes from all walks of life. Several years ago, my son and I watched two people at a fast food restaurant try to conduct a transaction; one person placing an order, the other person taking the order. Neither one could understand the other. “Wutchoo wont?” asked the first person, to which the second answered, “huh?” And on it went for several minutes. They needed an interpreter, and I needed a sedative. Last month, I spent a full hour at a security office while the guards, Beavis and Butthead, tried to coach each other on how to accomplish the paperwork necessary for me to pick up a loaded trailer and depart with it. The challenges of the job and of communicating in a common language were just too much for them.

The blame can be placed in a variety of places. Government schools, the dumbing down of the larger culture, parental abdication of teaching in favor of the television, etc. I personally think there is a fashion component at work as well, inasmuch as there seems to be a correlation between the angle of a baseball cap and the ability of the wearer to complete a sentence. Ditto with the droopiness of pants.

The question is, what can be done about this, if anything? Can this slide into gibberish, mumbling, slurring, nonsensical prattle be arrested, let alone reversed? It’s reached a point where significant segments of society are walking around in such a communicative stupor, that they are barely even functional. Oh yes, …and they vote. Ideas anyone?

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    It’s an overall coarsening of the language by the media. Just read an article on Big Hollywood ( that talks about a new hit whose title can’t be copied here. Where’s Tipper Gore when you need her ?

    MIsogyny is making a big comeback, from the heart of darkness, a whiny type of complete entitlement, think Eminem. Nobody stopped these “artists” when they sang about killing police, or breaking the law, and now it’s gone carnal. Having missed the Snoop Dogg porno collection, I can assume it was a success due to his complete acceptance at all levels of society. Or Jay-Z hanging in the Situation room .

    Blame the Dept of Education, but blame the entertainment conglomerates for the reverse sewer effect flooding the streets with toxic trash. Cultural relativism is the culprit. Because someone was on stage, the relativists deemed it art. You know tropes like “raw urban poetry”.

    Superpredators were the threat a couple years ago. Turns out superwhiners was the result of them being too lazy and too spoiled to do any serious predation.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    I’d like to compliment a little part of our young population that speaks great English. Part of my “job” since I’ve been retired is traveling to lots of nooks and crannies in the US. I’ve experienced what Dave writes about in restaurants everywhere in the country. The absolute worst was at a fast food joint in Charleston, SC; until my order arrived I wasn’t sure there was communication between the counter person and me. But there is one part of the country where most of the counter kids speak English fabulously – is that a word? Try out a McDonalds in one of the little Navajo towns in NE Arizona; eg, Tuba City or Chinle. The counter kids, especially the young women, regularly knock my socks off with their articulateness.

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  3. Profile Photo Coolidge


    Do you remember the 1980’s phrase valley girls? Like, ohmigod? Now, everyone says the like, and eliminates the god. The War Against Grammar by classicist David Mulroy is essential reading.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Podcaster

    Patrick, I think I’ll put in a request with my dispatcher now.

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  5. Profile Photo Podcaster

    I’ll have a look at it. Thanks. And yes, I remember the valley girl nonsense, but it seems to be getting worse somehow. Now, I can’t even understand the words, or grunts, or whatever they are. I am closing in on 50, so maybe it’s a factor of age as well.

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  6. Profile Photo Coolidge

    I’m 46, so I’m not far behind. The other theory I’ve heard (John Derbyshire?) is that students being forced to memorize large chunks of poetry and recite it aloud was what kept the average citizens tongue from degenerating into what it is now. I think there’s something to that, and today’s citizens sound like Demosthenes with the pebbles still in his mouth.

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  7. Profile Photo Member

    Once again, a lack of standards rears its head. I suppose that speaking in grunts, non-verbal facial cues, and twenty-seven variations on the term “Dude” is acceptable among one’s family and close friends, but when interacting with strangers, some basic levels of enunciation and grammar have to be maintained. Speaking “good enough for my homies” doesn’t make the grade with customers or clients. Allowing this to slide in primary and secondary schools does no one any favors.

    The english language is a tool; respect it.

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  8. Profile Photo Coolidge

    And, how could I forget The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein of Emory University. Filled with, like, real data, eh?

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  9. Profile Photo Member

    What can be done? Homeschooling if possible and reading to your children and bringing back Latin.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    Tripedis Canis: Once again, a lack of standards rears its head. … when interacting with strangers, some basic levels of enunciation and grammar have to be maintained. Speaking “good enough for my homies” doesn’t make the grade with customers or clients. Allowing this to slide in primary and secondary schools does no one any favors.

    The english language is a tool; respect it. · Nov 29 at 8:13pm

    I have worked with (recent) high school graduates who would often make basic grammatical errors, saying, “I seen” instead of “I saw,” for instance, and could barely write a coherent paragraph when called upon to do so. T.C. has it pegged–these kids are allowed to slide.

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  11. Profile Photo Member

    Should we be all that surprised? Professors of English at major Universities now typically hold dual appointments in other departments and spend as much or more time pontificating on issues of race/sex relations and class struggles then they do teaching the English language. Insisting on standards for the English language is a form of prejudice after all.

    As go the Universities, so goes the high schools and below, for they breed the next generation of teacher, more concerned about diversity and student self esteem than actual education.

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  12. Profile Photo Inactive

    A few years ago, Matt Parker and Trey Stone (of “Southpark” fame) made a movie called “Idiocracy.” It was funny, crude, lacking in polish – and it painted a very grim picture of the future, based on the current trends in education and communication.

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  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    Dave Carter: Patrick, I think I’ll put in a request with my dispatcher now. · Nov 30 at 8:01am

    Great! If you have a temptation to try mutton stew, resist it.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Podcaster

    Songwriter, my son had me sit down and watch that movie. It does seem that we are moving that direction in some respects. By the way, did you know that gatorade has electrolytes?

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive

    I was like reading this and then I was like, no way….

    So I went, “Like the prof said in English 101: Nothing could be worse than making a value judgment. That would be so hierarchical, you know?

    Besides, you wouldn’t want to like, blame the victims, you know what I’m sayin’?

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  16. Profile Photo Contributor

    I admit to being pretty apt to communicate via

    mumbling, slurring, nonsensical prattle,

    gesticulations, and inarticulate noises myself. So I’m hardly innocent.

    But I did grow up under the expectation that I’d use a more formal register around my elders. And endure correction from them when I slipped.

    Which is why my teenage cousin’s story about Mean Sarah — a story she told in front of her mother — managed to completely baffle me:

    She had written a class project “all about a road trip with my friends and Mean Sarah.” It told of how “my friends and Mean Sarah” would visit Washington DC, drive across the prairie, into the desert… I was hearing so much about Mean Sarah that I began to wonder whether the punchline of the story would be everyone else stranding Mean Sarah in the desert, or locking her in the trunk.

    When no such punchline materialized, I ventured to ask, “So, do you call her Mean Sarah because she is so nice?”

    My question drew blank stares from both my cousin and her mother.

    Turns out my cousin was saying — in front of her mother — “me ‘n’ Sarah” over and over again, without correction.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Inactive

    I worked in a retail store in the 70s in an area similar to Hill Street Blues, but 95% African American. To function there one had to learn the local language in order to communicate… was English, sort of, just not a version used anywhere else. It would appear that they figured out how to successfully export their dialect to other regions.

    Reagan once said that the closest thing to eternal life we will ever see is a Govt. program. I would suggest that we eliminate that spectacular failure that is our Dept. of Education, replacing it with a national voucher system. This may or may not help to cure the ignorance in language problem – but will assuredly be less expensive than almost any other approach.

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  18. Profile Photo Contributor

    Sing along!:

    She’s a young girl talking about herself(You can’t stop her)She’s a young girl talking about herself(She keeps on talking) She’s gonna break your heartAnd tell the world about itShe’s gonna break your heart: I was like, she was allHe was all, they were likeWe were all likeOMG like totally We were like, I was allThey were all, He was likeShe was like allTotally like OMG…
    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    Dave Carter: ” there seems to be a correlation between the angle of a baseball cap and the ability of the wearer to complete a sentence. Ditto with the droopiness of pants.

    I sometimes joke that the direction the brim of your hat is pointing is the direction your life is going.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member

    Dave, I stopped at Pat’s yesterday and heard a Cajun accent for the first time in many years. I was clueless. Luckily, one of my companions was still able to decipher the bayou tongue.

    Informal and trendy dialects are not the problem. The problem is that too few people are expected to compliment casual speech with public speech. I have no problem with someone talking like a gangsta or valley girl as long as that person is considerate enough to realize that a different style of English is necessary when talking to people who don’t share that colloquialism.

    The problem is learned selfishness; an unwillingness to adjust one’s behavior when interacting with others.

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  21. Profile Photo Inactive
    Dave Carter: Songwriter, my son had me sit down and watch that movie. It does seem that we are moving that direction in some respects. By the way, did you know that gatorade has electrolytes? · Nov 30 at 8:49am

    It’s good and good for you, as we say here in NashVegas.

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Inactive

    I blame universities more than secondary and earlier schooling. I’ve employed as summer workers a number of young people who were grad students at a major university in my province. Before I’d experienced otherwise, I had thought that simple communication or basic math skill would be needed to get out of high school, never mind earn an undergrad degree.

    While it’s a little off topic, it scares me to think back on the large number of people who worked for me who could not read a tape measure or do a simple problem like figure out where to use 8′ and where to use 10′ sheets of drywall. Write out the invoice and hand it to the homeowner and collect the cheque from them? Good luck!

    I now work in a retail environment, and a sizable number of the patrons I see don’t even respond coherently to a greeting of “Howdy” or “good afternoon”.

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Member

    I remember standing in Subway and watching the two people mentioned in the post try to decipher the other’s slang. It’s disturbing that events like this are more common in the workplace, and are actually becoming acceptable. I think the problem starts with parents and schools though. It’s simply not enforced enough.

    In 7th Grade I was helping an English teacher go over S.T.A.R. test results. One of the requirements was reading level had to be on or above current grade level. I was amazed at how many of my peers were barely at or below grade level. There were only two or three of us with reading skills well above grade level, and even a few who had 3rd and 4th grade levels. Saddest of all is that those who were below grade level still managed to pass the class.

    For the record, Songwriter, Idiocracy remains one of my favorite movies.

    “What are electrolytes?”

    “It’s what they use to make Brawndo.”

    “But why?”

    “Because Brawndo’s got electrolytes.”

    • #23

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