Linguistic Tics

Apparently during his Olympic commentary with the BBC, Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe is beginning many of his sentences with the word “look”, and he often punctuates this by pointing a finger as he says it, and he dresses a bit individually sometimes, and the viewing public find it all a bit disconcerting[1]. Ian’s not being aggressive. He’s not like that. Ian’s nice. But he has the odd “linguistic tic”, as the article in the paper says … and let’s face it, so do we all.

The new coach of rugby league’s Parramatta Eels, Ricky Stuart, has been coaching the NSW State of Origin team for a couple of years, and before that he coached a few club teams, and a coach is called upon to answer questions about pertinent matters and make statements on those matters and reflect in a preview or review sense on the games which have passed or which are coming up, and as such we get to hear the way a coach talks. We become familiar with their linguistic tics. Ricky says “in regards to” a lot. He says it when he could say “regarding” instead. He says it when he doesn’t really need to say anything at all. He could say “as far as X is concerned …” but instead he says “in regards to X …” and it’s a little bit grating, but it’s almost cute that someone who is intelligent enough, but not verbally dextrous, has to find little word and phrase triggers which allow him to get his point across. Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy says “again” a lot. He often begins a sentence with “again”. It is a shorthand for, “as I was explaining previously” or “we’ve been over this before”, but sometimes he will put this word into a long string of words which are about an entirely new topic, something never before raised, discussed, or vocalised about, and ditching the word would only have the effect of making his meaning clearer. But he doesn’t ditch it. He can’t.

It can be something akin to addictive, the deployment of these linguistic tics. Once you start, you may not be able to stop. When I was small I developed mania for saying certain words, and would say them over and over again, with varying degrees of accuracy, because I liked them and thought they sounded good. At the age of nine or ten I overused the term Harvey Wallbanger so much that it lost all meaning. Indeed, I’m not sure that I ever knew it referred to a drink or would have known what a cocktail was. But I used it to refer to something big and boisterous and full of impact. A collision or explosion: that sort of thing. And like all such words which appeared in my lexicon, and then cast a long shadow over other perfectly good words, I discarded it eventually. Or it withered. It never quite died. They don’t die if you refuse to let them, but it went away for a while. For a few decades actually, until just then.

When swear words came along they also underwent period of wild overuse, but the pattern changed a bit then, and wild overuse gave way to mere overuse, and there are very good words which have specific and precise meanings, beautiful words, some of them, which become neglected because it is simply more satisfying to say a handful of short Anglo-Saxon words instead. I was getting older by this point and besides swearing is a special case anyway but the pattern still persists. One encounters a new word, likes it, and wishes to incorporate it into daily or polite usage or conversation, and sometimes this works but mostly it doesn’t and the word is forgotten.

For a while I developed a sort of reverse linguistic tic, where certain words were limited or even eliminated if I could. This was strange, and it was different in any case for this was in my writing not in my speech, and the two areas are, although related, quite estranged. I was regularly writing football match reports, which sounds a pointless and empty pastime devoid of expression, voice, and art, but it was in fact a very good grounding in regularly putting words together and trying to make material of limited interest fun to read. Anyway, I for a time stopped using “a” “the” and “and”, if I could avoid them. My readers may not have noticed. The intention was that they wouldn’t. But apart from some stilted sentences here and there I found that it was possible to not use these articles and this conjunction – well, not use them much.

While my literary output grew I listened more to the way people talk and made the occasional note and tried to replicate speech patterns from time to time. Certain commonplace collections of words and their strange uses started to really stand out, and to really irritate me. I’m not like those people who constantly go on about the way English is becoming too American and the way that the language is being dumbed down. The language is living; it takes influences from many languages, and while some terms and usages make me happier than others there seems no point being a grumpy old reactionary, if you can avoid it. And I don’t like the phrase “dumbing down”. A number of phrases grated. The chief one being “in terms of”. Now this is a useful phrase. It is a way of sorting out and explaining a statement. One might say, “the former prime minister’s knighthood was a very bad idea, in terms of fostering popularity among the lowly pair workers, with whom she remained deeply unpopular” – and that makes some sort of sense. When nothing needs explaining the phrase isn’t necessary and it can be quite confusing if you really listen to how people insert it in their speech. They say things like, “winning the lottery was a huge bonus, in terms of having extra money in our bank account”. It doesn’t make me angry, but I do find it amusing, and sometimes bemusing, and often it’s a little bit annoying too.

People misuse bemuse too. They could say amuse and it would make as much sense. In fact, it would make more, as people tend not to really know what bemuse means. I should have written “amusing” – sorry about that.

So much can be wrong or imprecise in the way we talk, yet this is irrelevant if people understand us. However, listening carefully may allow us to really hear what other people say, and when we listen to other people we may begin to listen to ourselves too, and this is a good thing. We can only improve our communication if we take the time to pay attention to others and to ourselves. I’ve been using subordinate clauses far too much in my sentences and, while there’s no harm in this, indeed some good people I know do the same thing, it’s a linguistic tic to be avoided.

Published in: on August 1, 2012 at 8:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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