Wednesday, April 25, 2007

whine x3, or The Dawn of a New English


Text messages harm written language: report

The most relevant quote:
"Text messaging, with its use of phonetic spelling and little or no punctuation, seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing.

The report laments that, in many cases, candidates seemed "unduly reliant on short sentences, simple tenses and a limited vocabulary."
The whining of traditional grammarians is endlessly tiresome. Read that quote again, and note the quite correct use of the word "conventions." That is what "correct" written English actually is, a set of conventions set down in stone about 400 years ago. Many of these conventions were arbitrary attempts to make the English language bear a stronger resemblance to Latin, which I guess was considered a good idea at the time--if you wonder where such bullshit rules like the prohibition on dangling prepositions comes from, it's from that sort of thinking. The primary impetus was more practical, though: Someone realized that things would be a lot easier for everyone if we all spelled our words the same way.

However, all good intentions aside, languages change over time. This is an unavoidable fact. Whenever a particular language develops a standardized written form, that process of change slows down substantially--by my guess, probably to a rate of one tenth the "natural" rate for unwritten languages. My source for this supposition is John McWhorter's excellent book, "The Power of Babel" (which I think should be required reading for all grammarians, and which is also the single book I find myself recommending more than any other book). Languages which don't possess a written form typically evolve at a much faster rate--in fact, what seems to happen is that the language changes at the maximum rate which allows the oldest and youngest generations of people currently living to communicate with each other. This was discovered when European explorers would carefully document the language of a particular native people, then come back a mere 100 years later only to discover that the language had changed beyond recognition.

Any codified written language that's formally drilled into the heads of young people will obviously slow down this process, but the process continues nonetheless. Pick up one of the works of William Shakespeare, and try to understand it. You probably can't very well, because, in spite of the fact that Shakespeare is credited with basically inventing Modern English, he did it 400 years ago. The language of that time has gradually slipped into obscurity, and is almost unintelligble to large portions of the population. Words common in 1600 have disappeared from the language, others have changed their meanings due to semantic shift, grammatical conventions were simplified over the course of the 20th century in order to accomodate a massive influx of immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, and so on.

In fact, it's a testiment to the efficacy of standardized written language that we can understand Shakespeare at all, and I think the loss of this ability to understand hundreds of years of literary traditions, as well as the prospect of having people 100 years from now not be able to understand us, is what gives rise to cries of alarm over text messaging. McWhorter suggests that Shakespearean English is basically a "foreign" language to most modern English speakers--a suggestion that Shakespeare scholars would no doubt revile, but which is essentially correct. While I acknowledge that it is regrettable that most people can't understand a great work like The Tempest without substantial annotation, it is a fact, nonetheless. It is not a failure of our educational system, it is simply how languages work over time. Most Shakespeare, these days, may as well be published in two-column format, kind of like a new translation of "Beowulf" that I saw a few years ago: one column for the original, and one column that people can actually read.

Why does this happen? Well, it all seems to fall on teenagers.

I am not assigning blame, here, because I don't see anything wrong or shameful about the process. Each new generation of young people develops linguistic conventions to suit its own needs, and one of those needs is the need to create something new. Another need, even more important, is to be able to communicate about the world the way it is now, rather than the way it was 20 or 100 or 500 years ago. When a written language exists, the process of adaptation is slowed down, but it can never really be stopped. The existence of text messaging, where the traditional means of writing has been replaced with a method only capable of sending information in a rather crude format, has introduced an additional need--since most young people use text messages far more than traditional methods of written communication, they have obviously had to adapt, to simplify the language to be useable with the new medium. [see footnote] Furthermore, the conventions developed for efficient text-messaging appear to be creeping into the speech patterns of at least some people (quote from that article, "So dedicated is she to the art of the text message that Tirosh apparently unwittingly uses abbreviations such as BTW (by the way), TTYL (talk to you later) and LOL (laughing out loud) in her normal speech"--I have to wonder, how is "BTW" pronounced???).

What is unfortunate is that older people seem to view this as a bad thing. What the younger generation of today is accomplishing, in a simply massive and incredible act of collaboration, is a complete revisioning of the English language, practically from the ground up. What they are doing is inventing a new language--it's a monumental achievement, which they should be proud of (note the dangling preposition there, heh heh heh--I'm such a radical). One primary concern, which I would certainly consider legitimate, is that they maintain the ability to communicate with us older people, in our more traditional, more convoluted, harder-to-spell, less efficient version of English. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that this will not turn out to be a problem, at least not for a long time. Children of immigrants are all typically bilingual, speaking their parents' language at home, and the language of their new culture outside. The youngest generations of English speakers are currently involved in a very similar situation, plus they have the same mental capacities as immigrant children, so there's nothing to suggest that they won't continue to be able to communicate with us at will. (More difficult will be communicating with them when they don't want to be understood.)

Another legitimate concern is that what we currently consider to be "English" might fragment into several different, new languages. I am not certain where the boundaries would fall (although McWhorter quite clearly demonstrates how, in the real world, there aren't any actual boundaries between languages), but one could suggest that the new languages would be, roughly, "US", "UK", "Oz", and "India" (sorry, Canada, but I've been to your country, and you guys speak the same language that we do in the US, with almost no differences at all). How an international form of English would survive when the original native form no longer exists is an interesting question--would English turn into something akin to Latin 1000 years ago? On the other hand, in order for that sort of linguistic speciation to occur, there would need to be barriers to communication between the different populations of speakers (or texters, in this case), and I just don't see that happening. If anything, the differences between those four countries are already being ironed out, and not just in the youngest generations--these days, I usually can't even tell just from a person's writing style what country she is from. Once and a while, I will notice a spelling like "colour" or use of a word like "knickers" and that will offer a clue, but that really doesn't seem to happen very often. In short, I am not worried about fragmentation, since I already see the opposite happening.

On the whole, everyone needs to relax about this. We are very fortunate to be living at such a time, because the English language doesn't enter a whole new era very often. By the estimations of most scholars, it's only happened three times before. The divisions seem somewhat artificial to me, but the way I learned it, English has existed in three distinct forms up to now: 1) Old English, which first developed when the Saxons invaded England, pushing the native Celtic-language-speaking peoples to the west (hi Wales!). This was the language of Beowulf, a form that existed roughly up until the Norman conquest of England in 1066. 2) Middle English, the form which evolved in the centuries after that invasion, when a massive influx of French words filtered into the language. England had also been settled by quite a lot of Norse "invaders" by this time, too, plus there were the Celtic peoples still living in the north and west, and the eventual conquest of Wales. This era was when Chaucer came up with The Canterbury Tales (although it should be stated that, when Chaucer was alive, the mixture of English and French was still only beginning, meaning that Chaucer's vernacular English wouldn't have contained as many French-origin words as later works). This is also the time when English lost a lot of its old Germanic inflections. Written works from this period are recognizably English to our eyes, yet are totally unintelligible to our ears (at least, to my midwestern American ears). 3) What is somewhat unfortunately named "Modern English" came into being a few centuries after Chaucer, thanks largely to William Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. Formal, codified grammar and spelling were not introduced until after Shakespeare (which is another reason we find him hard to understand). We should probably change the names of "Middle English" and "Modern English" to "Chaucerian English" and "Shakespearean English", respectively, as a way of acknowledging that the language as a whole is still evolving, has not reached a final "modern" form, and will always be changing, whether we like it or not. Each of these great changes in the language was due to substantial, identifiable influences, such as the movement of the Saxons to the British Isles, the mixing together of Saxon, Norman, Norse and Celtic peoples during the middle period, and the emergence of England as a cultural and political powerhouse during and after the Elizabethan period (not to mention the internal and colonial upheavals which occured in the centuries afterward). Today, the corresonding influence is, as has been stated, a new and ubiquitous communication technology that's mostly incompatible with the old "Modern" English.

Of course, there is the question of what to call the new lingo--I thought "Upspeak" was a really catchy and suitably short name for it, but when I looked it up on Wikipedia the other day, the term has apparently been assigned to something else already. Plus, "Upspeak" has too many letters to be a good term for texters. Perhaps just "UP". As in "speak UP". LOL



Footnote: One possible benefit of this simplification of English, assuming the new form can ever be adequately codified, is that it might alleviate the long-standing problem of English being too difficult for foreigners to easily learn. As the process of globalization continues, it's apparent that only a small number of languages will become global standards, spoken by everyone--my guess is that English, more than any other language, is best positioned to assume that role, thanks to the fact that it is already spoken or being learned by probably 1/3 of the world's population, whether natively or not, and that the process of paring down, trimming, and simplifiation necessary for it to assume its role as a proper lingua franca has been ongoing for more than 100 years already. Others that are positioned very well, by my estimation, would be Spanish, due to its very widespread use (and the fact that it's fairly easy for English speakers to learn), and possibly Mandarin. Mandarin is an interesting case, because it is mostly spoken by one gigantic single nation, rather than being spread around over multiple countries like English and Spanish. This means that standards of speaking in Mandarin are currently much more rigid than in the other two languages--this will have to change, if Mandarin is to assume a prominant role as an international language in the coming decades. As I said, English will have an advantage if it can be simplified and made easier to learn--this principle applies to Mandarin as well. On the other hand, the political influence of China in world affairs will probably have a positive impact on the spread of Mandarin--only this morning, for instance, I read in the newspaper a story of local schoolchildren being taught "Chinese" in school. This would have been unimaginable when I was that age.


Concluding note: I titled this article "whine x3", to mean "whine whine whine." Strictly speaking, "whine" should be spelled the way texters would spell it, but how is that? I admit, I don't know. The "h" and the "e" are apparently superfluous, being silent, but eliminating them gives "win", which is obviously wrong. An interesting problem, so I left it in the traditional spelling. (People in some places even add an additional letter: "whinge." I always found that odd, myself.)



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