I love the English language.  It was my major in college, and I was one of those freaks who enjoyed learning Latin because it was cool to be able to understand the origins of our words.  Besides, I went to Catholic school and the nuns drilled proper grammar into our heads.  Graduation was an impossibility if your language skills were not perfect.  Did I mention that I attended 16 years of Catholic schools?  Maybe that will give you a little insight into my disciplined, neurotic approach to speech.  Is there any wonder that when someone uses improper grammar that it hurts my ears?  Like nails on a chalkboard.  Really.  But I have always held dear to the law of good manners – that the nuns taught me –  to never correct anyone whose grammar didn’t size up to Sister Mary Conjugation‘s standards. 

I was told – by the nuns, no doubt – that the way someone speaks is a direct indicator of intelligence and education.  When we started to job hunt after graduation from college, we were coached that our communications skills counted as much as our grades and appearance when trying to impress potential employers.  But as I’ve grown older and encountered a breadth of humanity far more demographically diverse than my Catholic schoolmates, I’ve found that there are some people who are offended by “proper speech.”  I once dated a man who accused me of sounding like British royalty.  I don’t think he meant that as a compliment.  This was the guy who answered the phone by saying, “Yo!”  First of all, I don’t have a British accent.  And secondly, my family isn’t anywhere close to being royally wealthy.  I wish.   Needless to say, I didn’t date this guy for very long.  Cheeri –yo!

Just because my speech isn’t cluttered with “gotta,” “where’s it at” and a preponderance of “totally’s” doesn’t make me a member of the snobbish aristocracy.  I once tried to “dumb down” by speaking like some of the people I worked with in the 90’s at the corporate headquarters of a major convenience store chain.  Instead of properly pronouncing the name of a French shoe designer during a conversation with a female colleague, I used the English pronunciation so that I wouldn’t sound too snooty. (Did I mention that I studied French for 8 years at those Catholic schools?)  To my dismay, I was quickly corrected and made to feel very stupid.  I guess that’s why it’s called dumbing down. 

The lesson here should be obvious – always be myself.   I can’t make everyone happy and it doesn’t feel good to pretend to be someone I’m not.  But others may prefer to dumb down rather than to be themselves and risk judgment of others.  Maybe that’s how our language has evolved, through the introduction of slang usages and words and phrases from other languages spoken by immigrants.  Could it be that my speech may sound peculiar and common to someone from, say, the 19th century?  Without a doubt.  The English language is constantly evolving and I can acknowledge that but do I have to say “totally?”  Well, like, only partially. 

When I wrote this post, I thought I had made up the phrase “dumb down.”  When I Googled it, I found that in fact it exists!  And there are books written about the dumbing down of America and of education in our schools.  My brother and one of my good friends are college teachers and I have heard them frequently say that many of their students cannot write.  They wonder how their students graduated from high school. What do you think, my readers?  Is America dumbing down or is our language simply continuing to evolve?

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