Skip to content
 

Are public utterances getting more complex?

Awhile ago I discussed the Flynn effect and Seth Roberts’s view that the writing in newspapers and magazines had become more sophisticated in the past 50 years–an idea that was consistent with Steven Johnson’s book finding increased complexity in TV shows.

Seth just sent me something interesting along these lines. Seth writes:

I saw this in a NY Times article:

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Representative Charles A. Eaton, Republican of New Jersey, made his case in the House for why the nation should enter the Second World War.

“Mr. Speaker,” his speech began, “yesterday against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land.”

Last year, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, made the case for war in Iraq this way:

“And if we don’t go at Iraq, that our effort in the war on terrorism dwindles down into an intelligence operation,” he said. “We go at Iraq and it says to countries that support terrorists, there remain six in the world that are as our definition state sponsors of terrorists, you say to those countries: we are serious about terrorism, we’re serious about you not supporting terrorism on your own soil.”

The linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter cites these excerpts in his new book, “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care” (Gotham Books). They not only are typical of speeches made in Congress on both occasions, he argues, but also provide a vivid illustration of just how much the language of public discourse has deteriorated.

Notice that what Brownback said is considerably more conceptually complex than what Eaton said, even though the number of words is about the same.

On first glance (and with all due respect to my complete ignorance of the field of linguistics), I agree with Seth on this one: in terms of content, Brownback’s statement is much more sophisticated than Eaton’s, and I don’t see this as “deterioration” at all.

Seth continued with:

Something similar: A few days ago I read a talk by Richard Hamming called “You and Your Research” (google the title to find it) in which he notes:

John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility.

Relatively complex ideas in a relatively casual package (Brownbeck, Tukey) causing negative feelings in listeners (McWhorter, “the other fellow”).

Perhaps my self-experimentation suffers from a similar problem: How dare he measure his own weight! Or his own mood. It’s too casual! This analogy suggests history is on the side of self-experimentation. Business dress, like the speeches of congressmen, has become more casual.

Interesting thoughts. I assume this is the same John McWhorter who contributes to the cool Language Log website. I wonder what McWhorter think of Seth’s comments on the complexity of public statements.

P.S. Mark Liberman of Language Log has a long and interesting response here (for some reason, I can’t get these things to show in Trackback). Here’s what I have to say in response to his comments:

Regarding the particular issue in my posting, I think that Seth was responding to the NYtimes article referrong to how “The language of public discourse has deteriorated.” Seth is arguing that, if content increases while style becomes simpler–well, that’s not deterioration at all, but rather an improvement on two counts.

Also, I like the graphs in Mark’s post. I think they’d be sligltly imporved by extending the y-axes down to zero.