The Speed of Diminished Returns

I do my best to avoid routines on principle. In the mornings, though, I’m forced to adhere to a routine. Two of us, after all, are trying to get three of us out the door and to our various obligations, and my slowness in waking up and becoming functional at any point before noon requires not only a significant amount of coffee, but also a morning ritual. Otherwise, it’s almost certain that I’ll show up at my first appointment of the day with teeth unbrushed or, worse, living one of those nightmares in which you’re meeting someone important and have forgotten your pants.

Don’t laugh. If you’ve ever seen me in the mornings, you know it could happen.

The problem is that, as much as the morning routine facilitates speed, it also leads to a corresponding increase in potential for error. Fortunately, Karen and I check behind each other on important things, such as whether or not our daughter’s bottle is packed in her diaper bag, permitting me time for an extra glance in the mirror to make certain I’ve shaved and am wearing pants. When I’m doing it on my own, however, as different schedules sometimes necessitate, I’m forever leaving home without something that needed to be put into the mail, or without my coffee cup (trigger alarm bells), or the book I’m returning to the friend I’m meeting for coffee that afternoon…you get the idea. The faster I’m moving, the less likely I am to remember everything. In fact, the faster I’m moving in the morning, the less likely I am to take be careful about the quality of things like my appearance. Last weekend, for example, I had a commitment for sound mixing that involved me showing up for sound checks before 6:00 a.m. I threw on clothes, didn’t deal with contact lenses, barely took time to shave…I didn’t have time to take care of my appearance as I normally would. Everything sounded good, but I looked rough.

Last week, I read this review in the New Yorker of an important book discussing, among other things,  descriptivist vs. prescriptivist language. The review is worth your while to read, as it treats the decline of the English language in the Western world very lucidly. One of the (many) valuable points that it makes is that the increasing speed at which our culture moves negatively impacts the care we take with our language.

I think that a much larger amount of our problems than we might initially think result from the fact that we do not take time…take care…with our language. Just as I don’t take as much care of my appearance when I’m in a hurry, neither do I choose my words as carefully…or as lovingly…when I’m frustrated, or stressed, or multi-tasking. As most of us are nearly always in a hurry, our words are seldom chosen with care. The result is that the power of our language to do harm is tossed about with casual disregard.

Of course, war also degrades language. As we’ve been in a state of war for a decade, now, it’s easy to understand how our vocabulary spirals downhill, and how the technical, quantifiable quasi-languages of mathematics and programming supersede the English language because they (in my opinion) require less effort. Early in my undergrad days, a communications professor mentioned a concept that has resonated with me ever since: civilizations advance or decline based upon their ability to talk about their problems. As war has a dumbing-down effect on culture, certainly our language is dumbed down with it, and thus we can no longer communicate effectively.

Poet Sarah Kay says that she abstains from Twitter because the speed of the medium does not permit her to take care with her word choice and with the language. For all of us, as a culture, to fall in love with our language again would involve slowing down. That’s what makes me fear that it won’t happen, because I encounter limited interest in slowing down. I’m afraid that this will continue to lead not to the forward momentum of our language, but to the de-evolution of our language that we are already witnessing.  When we can no longer communicate with each other in an expansive and encompassing manner, and are limited to a narrow manner that limits us in scope as to what we can express, then I am left deeply concerned about the destination to which we rush so hurriedly.

“Going nowhere fast,” after all, is invariably successful in reaching the destination.

Photo Attribution: Shoops2011 under Creative Commons 

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