A Torrent of Messages

. . .  but How Much Communication?

Recently I was riding a Seattle metro bus along with a friend who visits this Speakeasy regularly and follows the conversation. Shortly after we boarded, the bus stopped to admit a bevy of eight young teenage girls, immediately effecting a complete change in the volume within the bus. Now, if you’re familiar with Seattle’s long, double buses, you might envision that section near the middle with four seats facing the aisle from the left and four seats facing the aisle fro, the right – in other words, an invitation for eight young girls to sit together, face-to-face, on either side of the aisle, as they pursue their journey. We were sitting directly in front of them.

Oh, the streaming! Oh, the volume! The cacophony! At one point I just couldn’t resist; I had to turn around and look. Yes, all months were open simultaneously. Every girl was fully engaged, and messages were clearly being sent and received and appreciated, many earning a response, others simply rising into the ether, forgotten or dismissed. I turned back to my companion who grinned and said, “Streaming!” Oh, my yes – they were streaming their communication, as young girls do and have done and will do, probably, for generations to come.

Now, we’ll get off that “batching and streaming” topic forthwith. But the experience did remind me of my most recent post here in the Speakeasy called Can we have too much communication? Well, as you might imagine, for my mature tastes and preferences, there was certainly too much of something going on during that bus ride. Ask the girls, though, and I’ll bet they’d say it was a perfect scenario. Their enthusiastic, endless streaming, however, does remind me of the absolute torrent of messaging the world now faces every hour of every day and night, and it brings me back to my closing statement of last week: “I believe the noise and the fog are probably responsible in large part for the decline of accuracy and specificity in our language – those things I keep complaining about . . . I submit that the desire to be heard above the noise, along with the need to fill the airwaves 24/7, is costing us the precision and nuance of our language. But that will be a topic for another day.”

Well, it’s another day, and I’m still on my high horse. I’ll say it again: I believe 24-hour “news” and commentary, along with unconstrained tweeting and posting and blatting and, yes, now even yelling and cursing on national TV, along with digital streams of every type of messaging imaginable, has inspired many (most?) “speakers” to grasp for a way to be heard, perhaps to give their message gravitas, make it competitive. And I submit to you that, among all the ills this situation engenders, the misuse of two of our language’s tiniest, most useful and least presumptuous words perfectly embodies that need to be heard above the noise.

The first one is “a.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The word is pronounced “uh,” not “ay.” But tell that to 95% of the folks who make their living either telling the news or commenting on it! Why does Cecilia Vega of ABC News, for example, now present almost every single noun in her report as “ay” something or other? I used to like listening to Cecilia Vega. And how about Reena Ninan of CBS? She’s not quite as bad; I’d give her a “C.” (I’m sorry, but when it comes to correctly pronouncing “a,” I must give Cecilia Vega an “F.”) But consider this: Jonathan Vigliani, a CBS correspondent, recently reported two spots on the broadcast Ninan was anchoring – and he correctly pronounced “a” every time in both spots. So you see, it can still be done.  Vigliani apparently assumes people are listening and giving credence to his message, and so he doesn’t have to scream that what he is referring to is so important it must be “ay” something or other. The thing can speak for itself.  

 I will tell you, though, that, if you check out a site called English.stackexchange.com, many will claim that, for special emphasis, one may pronounce “a” as “ay.” I say that is simple capitulation! Just because more and more people are doing it so their message sounds really important, it isn’t now acceptable. Why? Not because pronunciation can’t change; of course it can, and that’s how English usage morphs over time. My point is that, if every message did not have to compete with a barrage of noise, we could all just relax and share our information about “uh” something or other.

One dear contributor to English.stackexchange.com agrees with me: “I think the use of the long A pronunciation sounds uneducated and ‘read from script.’ I am amazed that news [and] sports announcers use it predominantly, especially when reading copy. Language should be natural, and the short A is always proper and has no relation to its usage before a consonant or vowel sound. Do you ask your neighbor ‘Did you get ay dog?’ or ‘uh’ dog? When in doubt, speak naturally.”

Hurray for common sense! But remember: It’s not about knowing how to pronounce something. It’s about the unrelenting need to sound like you’re talking about something really important or really proper or special - because everyone else is talking or tweeting or posting innumerable messages at the same time. It’s about the noise level. So, are we communicating too much? Heck no! We’re blabbing too much, too often, too consistently. How did we get to this point?

Closing thoughts (because I know you have to break away to check your Twitter feed and Facebook page and news stream and…): I mentioned “two of our language’s tiniest, most useful and least presumptuous words.” I’m going to save the other word for another day, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s begins with “u.” And my final thought on the topic of “a” is this: Our president often says “ay,” but that doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it sound good. Hillary Clinton often says “ay.” Bernie Sanders occasionally said “ay” during stump speeches. I have yet to notice whether Donald Trump says “ay”; maybe I’m just distracted. I wish I didn’t care, because it surely would make watching TV less painful these days. What do you think?