In “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness,” Clark Whelton takes aim at what he calls “the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century” — vagueness. Here’s the opening example:
I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Whelton began noticing increasingly aberrant speech patterns in prospective interns for New York City mayor Edward Koch’s speech writing staff. “Like,” “you know,” “like, you know,” along with non-committal interrogative tones particularly distressed Whelton. He goes on to add,
Undergraduates … seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite.
Whelton comes closest to the true nature of the situation here, but I think there is an important consideration that is missing. I’m inclined to think that the sorts of language patterns Whelton criticizes reflect a reversion to language environments that are more oral in nature than they are literate (a situation that Walter Ong called secondary orality).
The cadences and syntax of “high,” “correct,” “proper,” etc. English are a product of writing in general and intensified by print; they are not a necessary function of spoken language itself which is ordinarily much more chaotic. Writing is removed from the holistic context that helps give face-to-face communication its meaning. To compensate writing must work hard to achieve clarity and precision since the words themselves bear the burden of conveying the whole of the meaning. Oral communication can tolerate vagueness in words and syntax because it can rely on intonation, volume, inflection, and other non-verbal cues to supply meaning. As an experiment try transcribing anyone of your countless verbal exchanges and note the sometimes startling difference between spoken language and written language.
Where print monopolizes communication, the patterns of written speech begin to discipline spoken language. “Vague” talk then may be characteristic of those whose speech patterns, because they have been formed in a world in which print’s monopoly has been broken, have not been so disciplined by print literacy.
Interestingly, new media is often quite “print-ish,” that is text isolated from sound — emails, text messaging, Twitter, blogs, Facebook (although with images there) — and this has required the invention of a system of signs aimed at taming the inherent “vagueness” of written communication that is restricted in length and thus not given the freedom to compensate for the loss of non-verbal and auditory cues with precise syntax and copious language. : )