Howard Jacobson: I go and see a film and can't understand what anyone's saying. And I don't think I am alone

I date the demise of verbal communication to our our rejection of Received Pronunciation
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The Independent Online

Made a Polish waitress cry last week. I must stop doing that. This time the ostensible cause was teapots. My tea arrived as a perforated bag floating corpse-like on its back in a cup of brown soupy-looking liquid, which is not how I like it, and when I asked what had happened to the teapot she told me there'd been an incident. "Incident or accident?" I asked. I suppose I didn't need to know, since knowing wasn't going to get me a teapot, but if you're having a conversation, you're having a conversation. It is a species of impoliteness to go on speaking to a person when you aren't certain what they're saying.

Her eyes filled like my teacup. I didn't see what I had said or done to occasion that. I hadn't been aggressive. I had even essayed a smile. It is comic, after all, in a serious restaurant, to be served tea which you would no more think of drinking than you would an open sewer. "All usualised teaposies incriminated in unaccountable Nietzschean engineering catastrophe," she said, before scurrying away with her apron to her face. Now I know she couldn't possibly have said that, but it was what I heard. So whose fault is that?

Suddenly I can't understand what anyone's saying. I don't mean intellectually, I mean I can't distinguish the words people are using. Can't harmonise the sounds with any I already know. I've had my ears tested. They're not perfect – I've been using them too long for them to be perfect – but taking one thing with a bugger, the ear specialist told me, they're not too bag.

It's not only in restaurants that I have this problem. Shops the same, telephones, television, movies. Especially movies. I've been going to a lot of movies recently in company with a person who's close to me and happens to be a member of Bafta. At this time of the year she has to see every movie made since the Baftas of the year before. I make no attempt to influence her judgement. I just go along when I'm allowed and try my best to hear what's being said.

Usually I'm lost within the first 10 minutes of the movie starting. The Bourne Ultimatum had me floundering in five and with American Gangster I didn't make it past the credits. No Country For Old Men (overrated, in my opinion: violence stylised for intellectuals) had a mumbly beginning and got more mumbly from there, whereas There Will Be Blood was unintelligible initially before clearing itself up in line with Daniel Day Lewis's marvellously mad theatricality – and there is that to be said for the theatre: you can hear it.

Even Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead had me baffled for long stretches, which doesn't alter the fact that its failure to pick up a nomination is a scandal. Too Shakespearean, I can only suppose, in the playing out of its ineluctable morality. Too hot. Coen Brothers cold is the temperature of the hour. We like our existentialism ironic just now, perhaps as a relief from the childish ardour of our politics.

I have no doubt that subject matter has a lot to do with what I can and cannot hear. The majority of this year's most successful films are about killers, hitmen, gangland members, and other assorted scumbags, and I have never penetrated what gangland members say to one another in the movies. It's a matter of the conspiratorial pitch of their voices, partly. But also of what in my polytechnic days we used to call their aims and objectives. Not everyone is interested in the whys and wherefores of rubbing people out; and if the vocabulary of skulduggery doesn't grab you, you don't listen.

Let Marianne Dashwood lose her heart to Mr Willoughby and I follow every syllable of every palpitation. For love and its trials I am all ears. But the minute there's a criminal plot in the hatching I go to sleep. Even The Sopranos, to which I am a late and obsessive convert, is far more engrossing when Tony commits adultery or buys his wife a bracelet (the two are usually connected) than when he beats someone to a pulp.

And I suspect I am not alone in feeling this. Certainly every time I whisper to my companion to get her to explain what's happening everyone in the cinema turns around to tell me to shut up, which I take to be the proof that they're having trouble following as well. So I must assume that the fault is not in me but in the movie-makers, who want us not to comprehend because incomprehensibility is now the measure of cinematic authenticity.

This can't be the case in actuality, of course, because if criminals had as much trouble understanding one another as I have understanding them no crime would ever be committed. But then crime for cinema buffs is not crime as it is for criminals. Why we are so keen on watching killings from the comfort of our cinema seats at the moment is a subject for another day, but there can be no question that there's some nostalgie de la boue in the wind, a hankering for the brutalities which, for most members of Bafta, daily life does not provide.

And concealed in this hankering for brutality is a further hankering for a time before language. It is as though we have entered an anti-evolutionary period in which we wish to roll back civilisation and with it the words that mark us out as civilised.

However you explain what's going on in America, I date the demise of verbal communication in this country to our rejection of Received Pronunciation. Rather than be spoken to by a snob we understood, we chose the Babel Tower of warring regional accents – a trade-off of intelligibility for equality. Now we live in an anti-elitist dialect-democracy where no one knows what the hell anyone else is talking about.

A godsend for the capitalists who can with good conscience locate their call centres in places where nobody can assist you or otherwise purposefully take your call because you can't understand them and they can't understand you. Recently a person from the deep North-east of England attempted to sort out inconsistencies in my mobile phone account. "Aylike Baader Meinhof mullhi mead ya doont you cal coolate Gloria Steinem, anything else I can help you with," he said.

"Forget it," I told him. "I might as well be talking to a Dutchman."

"You calling me a douche-bag? I won't be spooken to like that," he said.

I'd have had him rubbed out, had I only known how to communicate with criminals.

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