At the precipice of not-English.
When the language dies in front of you.
For years I’ve been growing more confused as I watch television.
Maybe that’s good; the way things are headed, today’s television programming probably shouldn’t make sense.
For starters, I don’t recognize the “famous” people in the ads.
“Drink this or wear this. Eat this sandwich based on my stiffly awkward acting ability in this commercial.”
“Who is that?” I might ask my friend, sitting in a matching lazy boy across the room.
“I don’t know.”
“A singer? Someone who plays sportsball?”
“I don’t know.”
I don’t get the references or why it’s funny or relevant or even what they’re selling. Yes, that’s right. I DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND SOME OF THE PRODUCTS THEY’RE SELLING. Some ads use such weird camera action that it should come with a seizure warning. And as of late, I full-on don’t understand not only the ad, but the words being used in it.
There have always been mind-boggling ads.
Perfume ads, for example, have always been the most confusing as they grapple with trying to sell a smell. Unlike other products, such as food or cleaning products or cars, they fall in the unfortunate camp where toilet paper resides, a category of marketing where you can’t really show the product in use without weirding out your audience. Displaying the behavior of smelling people is nothing we want to see. So they take celebrities and starving models and place them in odd clothes saying whispery weird things staggering about the landscape, as if every time I spritz myself with the scented juice, ethereal and indescribable things will happen.
“If thou usest this perfume, thou shalt have a bad trip and behave barking mad.”
“I’m sold. Douse me.”
But ads in general have become progressively more confusing and products that should have upfront marketing angles, such as cars or food, have become the new perfume commercials.
I vaguely remember a commercial with a barely-dressed Paris Hilton writhing about on a car eating a burger. Nothing made me want a burger any less in that moment. My immediate thought, when watching that commercial, was whether she was scratching the paint on that car. I guess everything is about selling a feeling or lifestyle, not the quality of the product.
“It tastes good and is fairly priced, with verifiable nutritive value” has been replaced by “you hot, girl, if you eat this.”
“This car has a good engine with excellent financing available” has been replaced by “push the button, play with the dashboard gadgets pretending you’re not distracted, drive recklessly with an expensive car on roads you’d never take it if you actually owned it, and pretend you need to spend $100K on a car that can tell you where the nearest taco stand is, yo.”
Basic questions such as what does it cost, where is it made, how is it useful, and what guarantees does it come with are pushed aside for what appears to be code language.
I’m not sure which came first, the incoherent commercials, or the incoherent language. Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” has some thoughts on how sloppy language is connected to sloppy thinking, but I think we’ve gone far, far beyond even his most vivid imagination for what the future held (on every level, not just language).
While watching TV with a friend, a Sprite commercial came on. As God is my witness, I still don’t know what’s being said in it, despite concentrating every time it comes on the screen.
“What’s happening here?” I ask.
“What is ‘you know she busy with the glow up’ mean?”
“What does this have to do with soda?”
It’s as if I’m watching the reality television show set in the deep south where the production company has to put subtitles on the screen despite the people allegedly speaking English. I want subtitles and, frankly, context titles.
I understand I am from the land of the north, a place where we over-pronounce our vowels because we think they ought to be heard, a place where we verifiably speak at a slower rate than someone from the east coast. And I know accents and linguistic patterns vary across regions and cultural groups.
But seriously, I don’t understand a lot of what I hear on TV and it doesn’t have to do with accents.
It’s OK to give the English language a hard time. She can take the teasing. She can embrace the split infinitive when used for a Star Trek opening sequence. She can embrace artistic license with a few elbow jabs now and then, coming up Hemingway short or winding on forever under the pen of Faulkner.
It’s the outright murder of her that is a problem.
Fifteen or so years ago, I’d blog about the many articles that had been popping up, articles full of concern about the death of the English language thanks to technology. It was understandable that there were so many articles, because the people most concerned about the death of language would be writers, those who beget the articles. The internet, then social media, then emoticons and acronyms—all were murderous. Let’s not forget language light proliferating in modern children's and youth books, and a reduction of older texts in use in schools; that was on their list, too, because any writer knows that you write as well as you read, and in a similar fashion, you speak and think as well as you hear. Keep in mind the only Bible I had until I was 16 was King James. When I hear someone rattle off John 3:16, the Lord’s Prayer, or Psalm 23 in anything else, I’m taken aback.
Perhaps it was all of that combined, and then some, that knee-capped English.
More often than not, while watching television or even listening to younger people talk to each other while I’m out and about, my main internal question ends up being “is that even English?” followed by an out-loud “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
This is what I would do in a foreign country, except it’s even more confusing because I know I should understand since it’s English and I understand a bit, but yet I don’t understand really at all. It’s exactly like what this video depicts, where the viewer gets a sense of what a non-English speaker feels like when hearing an English speaker. The cadence is recognizable, but that’s it.
So I watch the newer television shows, the newer movies, listen to people in online videos or out in the real world, and each day I’m losing the ability to understand. I seem to be carrying a suitcase full of a delightful historic vocabulary that is no longer in service.
It feels as if we’re at the precipice of not-English.
Enough colloquialisms, modern mandate words compliments of Newspeak, acronyms, trends, and whatever else have entered the English language to make it almost incoherent, apparently, to someone born in the early 1970s.
I’m not going to buy that soda until I know if a glow up is a bad thing or not.