When did we stop being confident? I think it was not so very long ago as these things go…
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the English language. It’s quirky, it’s inconsistent, learning it is difficult compared to learning other languages, the rules are all over the linguistic map. But it’s a beautiful instrument, when played well. I fancy myself and editor and a writer and so I strive to use the language as well as I can – in speech as well as in writing. Part of knowing how to do that, I have always thought, involves crafting the sound of the words, phrases and sentences I speak. Like music, spoken English has a palette of sounds, of rhythms, of accents. And one of the most fundamental “riffs” in spoken English is that when you speak a declarative sentence, your voice goes down at the end of it. When you ask a question, your voice goes up.
So when did people – and I mean nearly everyone I hear these days, from friends to interviewees on the radio to celebrities on television – start adopting the really irritating custom of ending nearly every declarative sentence with a vocal uplift? Imperfect memory suggests it must have grown out of “valley-speak,” that vocal expression of simpering smugness that has evolved and mutated into whole-body manifestations like Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson. Wherever and whenever it began, it certainly seems to have pervaded every area of life and culture in these here United States.
Why else, when you listen to a perfectly innocuous interview taking place on radio, for example, would you hear an otherwise apparently well-educated, well-spoken person say something like, “Well, I was born in the midwest? And then I went to college and got my degree in archaeology? I gave a talk last year at Harvard? My newest book will be out in a month?” At least, that’s what it sounds like – every sentence capped by the voice lilting upward as if asking a question. What is up with that, anyway? It’s to the point where, from time to time, the phone will ring and I’ll pick up the handset and the person on the other end, whom I might know very well, will introduce himself with, “Hi, this is Cutter Kinseeker?” (No, of course that’s not his name; I may be an ex-publisher but I’m not a total crumb!) And the expressed question mark gives rise within me to fantasies of yelling back, “Are you sure? Who should I ask to be certain?”
I’ve been told that such vocal affectations might be the expression of a citizenry whose confidence has been so beaten down by the forces of “political correctness” that we’re all scared to make simple declarative sentences. We’re so afraid of offending the hypersensitive group du jour that rather than make any statment with conviction, we’ll ask it instead in the hope that the shield of our voiced unsureness will keep censure from raining down upon our heads.
I don’t know about you, but as a driver’s-license-carrying member of a supposedly great nation, I think that’s pretty damn sad?