The Twilight of American English

Tue, Jun 17, 2008 at 11:59 AM,
In my reading, I sense a change in the form and style of communication in American English sometime in the middle of the century. I wrote it off as selection bias and filtering as I am not seeing from 1908 the same broad selection of material that I see in 2008. Most of the ephemera of daily life disappeared and what remains was interesting and important for someone, so it is different. Then I saw some research that had been done in linguistics that attempted to control for this selection bias. That research, if I remember it correctly, documented a change in size of vocabulary, simplification of sentence structure and use of grammar as well as other measurable factors that might be associated with richness of communication. This research suggested there was a change in the way Americans communicate (and possibly how they think) that happened somewhere in the mid-1960’s.

Possible reasons for the change? The GI Bill, civil rights, the rising affluence of the middle class may all be factors. People who were not “in the conversation” in 1908 have a voice in 2008. There is greater enfranchisement in recent American literate culture. It is no longer merely the domain of the richest and most educated but includes a greater cross-section of American life. This may not be a problem, or even a change. It might just mean that we have extended the size of the sample.

Another possibility is the widespread availability and use of television. Television may change people’s habits from participation in activities like talking, listening and reading to watching. This is a change from spoken or written word-based communication to visual or image-based communication. It is also a change from active to passive participation. This might correlate with shorter attention span, smaller vocabulary, lower ability to follow or make complex arguments, etc. I would think this would be a great concern, especially in a democracy.

Perhaps the easiest way to see what I am talking about would be to look at it for yourself. One good place to look and still have some control over selection bias would be the US Presidential Inaugural Address. It is a speech that has been given every four years since 1789. The man who gives the speech has been chosen in part by his ability to communicate to at least a plurality of the American people. And that speech is his attempt to communicate his vision and plan for the future of America. Best of all the entire collection is available all in one place so it is easy to compare. (

While I don’t have access to complex linguistic analytical tools, I still perceive a change between LBJ’s 1965 and Nixon’s 1969 address. The difference is not dramatic. We don’t go from erudite oratory to illiterate monosyllables in four years. But before Nixon, the vocabulary is richer, the sentence and paragraph construction are more varied and complex. Arguments are made and supported. Important ideas include specific details. They are presented with varying degrees of formality, which imply respect. After LBJ the vocabulary is smaller and less complex. Sentence structure is simplified and paragraphs progressively disappear altogether. There is more colloquial language and repetition. There is an increasing vagueness and generality without detail. (One might attribute the difference to the change in dominant political parties occurring at the same time, but even the party exceptions— Eisenhower, Carter and Clinton— fit the overall linguistic pattern.)

I know this doesn’t prove anything. And perhaps you won’t see any of what I think I am describing. But it does correlate with other anecdotal evidence and suggests to me some kind of change in the way we think and communicate—one that might be a cause for concern.


~ by severalfourmany on June 17, 2008.

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