What Did He Say?

If, like me, you are currently “enjoying” or approaching your “golden years,” a phrase that is perhaps the euphemism to end all euphemisms, you may be of the impression that people are speaking more rapidly these days.

For me and my wife, that’s most apparent when we’re watching a movie or a TV drama. We both find that the characters tend to zip through their lines so quickly, our brains can’t keep up with them. We have also experienced this when a younger speaker is being interviewed on the radio.

Scientists say this is due not to an actual change in the average words per minute of speech, but rather to our aging and deteriorating cerebral cortexes.

I say, “poppycock!” (Knowing full well that using this archaic term, in itself, testifies to the extent of my decrepitude.)

OK. I admit my hearing isn’t as good as it should be, but when I listen, even without hearing aids, to people who speak at a normal conversational pace, normal people you know, like people over 60, I have no trouble understanding them. Except when they mumble, which is also becoming more common among my associates.

No. It’s the characters on TV that race through their lines who leave my poor old neurons in the dust. To add to the problem, they are talking too quickly even for the subtitles to keep up. Especially when the idiot who superimposes the subtitles decides it’s necessary to also subtitle the lyrics of the background music at the same time.

The fact these so-called scientists tell us people are not talking faster only serves to justify the waning credibility of science among the general public

Scientists be damned. We have been conducting a scientific experiment of our own over the past few years that involves binge streaming TV series that we missed when they were originally aired. Our options are endless as we were never in the habit of gearing our lives around a TV schedule, DVR or no DVR. In our case, no DVR since we learned long ago that the best way not to have time to watch something is to record it.

We got into “Blacklist” a couple of years ago and have watched all the seasons. Over time we became aware that the episodes always include a scene in which the team are gathered around throwing out ideas and observations at a pace that approaches the speed of light. Scarcely do you begin to get the drift of what one character said than another one chimes in. It creates a cascading wall of words that collide and tumble into a verbal tower of Babel.

“What did he say?” one of us asks the other, further interfering with our efforts to comprehend. “Beats the hell out of me” is the usual reply. Fortunately there is the backspace button. After backing up the scene a few times, we usually get the drift.

There can be no doubt that, like the general pace of life, speech is moving at a faster pace than it did “in our day.” We notice this particularly in much younger people. For example, while we have no problem following what our middle-aged daughter is saying, often our 18 year old grandchild seems to be rattling off words so quickly, we have trouble gaining the enlightenment of his superior knowledge. This is not helped by the tonal rise and fall and rhythmic idiosyncrasies common among those in his age group.

The current deterioration of spoken English began some twenty years ago with “uptalk.” This was initially employed by comedians satirizing the archetypal vacuous California “Valley girl,” but it quickly infected everyday speech patterns even among our peers. All this is so ubiquitous you probably not only do it, but don’t even notice it.

Uptalk coverts declarative sentences into questions by the voice rising at the end of the sentence. I have never ceased to find this extremely annoying as it gives me the feeling that I am considered by the speaker to be an idiot who has to reassure them, after each statement, that I understand the wisdom they are conveying. For me, it’s an experience akin to hearing fingernails scraping across a blackboard. That’s bad enough, but common speech has evolved around it into a musical pattern that, like the music the kids these days listen to, does not appeal to me.

But I digress. As I was saying. (Hmm….what was I saying? Oh, right. Our personal little scientific experiment.)

So, (every sentence has to begin with “so” these days making this sentence right up to date), now we are watching “Grey’s Anatomy.” I love this show for many reasons, but mostly for the reason that whenever a patient comes into the hospital I amaze my wife as well as myself by usually making the diagnosis before the TV doctors do. Then I tell her what the treatment and potential complications will be before the TV doctors tell the TV patients. This even though a lot of this stuff I learned (and, as a shrink, didn’t directly deal with on a day to day basis most of my career) a long, long time ago. A cynic may say this is no big thing because long term memory is preserved in dementia.

Now where was I….? Oh yeah… our scientific experiment.

“Grey’s Anatomy,” season one, aired in 2005. We watched through seasons 5 or 6 without having to back up the frame. But now we are on season 7, made in 2012. And guess what. The same characters in the same situations are now talking at mach speed. It can hardly be by coincidence that 2013 is the year “Blacklist,” that has posed this challenge from the outset, debuted.

We can thus conclude that, for some reason, the pace of speech sped up around 2012. Thanks to our incontrovertible scientific evidence, this is now well established, but it begs the question “why?”

You will not be surprised to learn that I have my own theories regarding that, but it’s a subject for another day. For now I will simply luxuriate in the knowledge that my brain is functioning perfectly well, thank you very much. As is usually the case, it’s the world that’s screwed up.

So…I think I’ll go out for a drink to celebrate.

As soon as I find my car keys.


  1. More great stuff from the mind of Norman! Loved this humor mostly because I can relate. My-soon-to-be husband and I find that the once-in-awhile commentators on MSNBC tend to be younger and talk so fast you can’t absorb all they say. It’s almost like they’re in a race to see who can talk the fastest to get the most in! In my case, I can’t hear a lot of it. This prompts me to say: “Joey, what did (he or she) say?” Now Joey always knows what they say because he’s 65 and hasn’t lost his hearing yet or his ability to understand rapid speaking, so I’m in luck for awhile.

    Fortunately, since we rarely watch the TV machine (only for News, Weather, PBS, and Ohio State football ) my frustration time is cut in half. I do find the person most understandable on MSNBC is Lawrence O’Donnell. And I think it must be age related because he’s the closest to my age!


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