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We Are All Hillbillies Now

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I blame sportscasters, mostly.

As the dumbing down of intellectual discourse in the U.S. continues to occur, the era is marked by certain characteristic grammatical mistakes.

Solecisms which would have been corrected by style-mongers, or by proofreaders, in even the recent past, now go on to become the default standards of the shared American language, at least to judge from how pundits, announcers and voiceovers speak on TV.

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Nobody, for example, seems to use the words lie and lay correctly, as it used to be taught in early school years. Just about everyone says, “I’m gonna lay down,” when English teachers formerly instructed their students to use lie. Even people who seem fairly well educated nonetheless talk this way now.

It could be that those teachers gave up on that particular lesson because of the danger in using the word lay in front of a class. Hard enough to keep order without giving the class cut-ups more material for mischief.

And, speaking of that, too many people say mischiev-i-ous, which is not a word, as a matter of course, when they mean mischievous.

You also get the “elegant nominative” all the time now. This is the use of the nominative I, even when the dative case is called for. Example: “She came here with my buddy and I.” Ouch!

Now, you wouldn’t– or formerly you wouldn’t– say, “She came here with I,” would you? Me, not I, is right to use. But there is a tendency to think the nominative singular I always trumps other usage, even among those who should know better.

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It’s an attempt to be highfalutin’, is what it is– which, in itself, is indicative of lower-grade speech.

Many years ago, the old Henry Aldrich radio program (1939-53) began with Mrs. Aldrich calling, “Henn-reeee! Henry Aldrich!” to which Henry’s quavering voice famously would reply, “Coming, Motherr!” Sometimes, though, Henry would answer by saying, “Are you calling I, Mother?”

This gag could only work if enough of the listening public knew what was a mistake, and what wasn’t. They used to, but no more.

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(Oh God, it’s hard not to be depressed to think how few people will have any idea what I’m talking about.)

Aside from the continuous, jarring irritation of listening to these and countless other grammatical distortions, all of which would have made Miss Dippel, my 5th grade teacher, tighten her nostrils in disapproval, my over-sensitive ears are also pained by the widespread pronunciation of many, many words in a manner formerly employed only in… the Southern states.

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It’s common to say INsurance now, rather than inSURance, the older standard. REpeat, rather than rePEAT. HarRASS instead of  the correct HARrass.

And, when did people stop saying “get” and start saying “git?”

Everybody does this, even staid news anchors.

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I do think sportscasters are largely culpable, being Southern white men characteristically. They’re certainly responsible for such goofy neologisms as “guestimate” or (God help us), “three-peat.”

Perhaps such examples as they provide have indeed been the vectors for changes into the language.

Some others:

Got for have.

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“I got five dollars in my pocket.” Should be have. A reflection of a greed-dominated, mercenary world-view? What one has may be supposed to have been got, or gotten, by predatory acquisition?

Fewer and less.

“Less” is used to refer to quantities. “Few” and “fewer” are for things you can quantify. “I got less than five minutes.” Say you have fewer. But you can say you have less time.

The use of a plural for a singular.

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“A vertebrae in his back was cracked.” “This is the criteria for the assignment.”

Of course it should be vertebra, the singular, and criterion. It comes from the general unfamiliarity with Latin words and their plurals– Latin used to be widely taught, but no more. Here’s where we also get the pesty non-word “Homo sapien,” deriving from the misconception that the species name Homo sapiens, e.g. wise, is a plural.

There is no such thing as a “Homo sapien,” and if you use this expression you are a dunce.

Not a very sapient mistake.

Disgraced lobbyist “Casino Jack” Abramoff, of all people, recently used the word “sapient” when appearing as a guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. The brainy Maher didn’t get it, or acted as if he didn’t– he said he thought it was something about apes.

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What does it matter? Doesn’t usage, more than book-definition, determine what is ultimately correct?

Yes, but language also molds thought. If we’re all becoming Southern Crackers, we’ll think the way they do, won’t we?

Like Republicans do.

There it is, you see. Republicans don’t care for education or educated people.

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They’re anti-teacher, as anyone following the political news knows. They always have been, but now they’re ever so much more so.

Check it out– the Republican Party of Texas wrote this into its 2012 Platform, in the section on education:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

The Texas GOP now opposes higher thinking skills.

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They’re not just against sex education, but forbid multicultural education and even early childhood education. The platform supports “school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.”

They don’t want critical thinking– who then would vote Republican?

Sure enough, it undermines authority. Theirs, by revealing it to be bogus.

I don’t think this is just paranoia on my part. Not that there’s a Republican stylebook (though if there is, then Karl Rove has it).

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But a dumbed-down electorate simply can be bamboozled easier, and this they know well.

Sloppy language, sloppy thought, manipulated, emotional response rather than critical thinking– all a necessary foundation for them to prevail.

Though they are well-known twisters of language, I’m not really saying that they engineer all the things that I find irritating about the way people talk.

No, I’m suggesting that these speech patterns are symptomatic of years of assault on schools, ideas, intellect.

Boy, they don’t miss a trick, do they?

[Silly hillbillies via Shutterstock.com.]

Hal Robins is a renowned underground comic artist and his work has appeared in Last Gasp’s Weirdo, Salon Magazine’s Dark Hotel and many other publications. For decades he has been the co-host of KPFA-Pacifica Radio’s “Puzzling Evidence” program. Reverend Hal is the Master of Church Secrets for The Church of the SubGenius. As Dr. Howland Owll, he has served as MC for many unique San Francisco events, and is the principle of The Ask Dr. Hal Show, still currently running both as a live staged event and in-studio on Radio Valencia (radiovalencia.fm) Friday evenings. Hal contributed his unique vocal talents to the award-winning interactive game Half-Life.


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