Wednesday, March 28, 2012

David Gelernter on "cyber-English"

From here:

Social networking, texting, email and digital messages have borrowed the keys to the English language and are joy-riding all over the landscape, smashing body panels and junking up the fancy interior. Many thoughtful people are worried. But it's good for English to get shaken up occasionally—by people who are using it in new ways, not by academics ordaining from on high.

In the 1980s and '90s, email saved the personal letter from extinction by moving it online. Email-writers have leaned heavily for decades on abbreviations, which suit this quick-and-casual medium. Thus the celebrated "lol," "laughing out loud," and many others.

When the young members of Generation-i use their phones to send text messages, the small keyboards make typing awkward and abbreviations even more important: "b4n" (bye for now), "cu" (see you). Texters, social-network posters and emailers are all prone to write (as their messages go zipping and hurtling back and forth) in sharp-edged shards and slivers of language.

Abbreviations and fragments are a language's normal response to stress. Medieval language is dense with abbreviations, because writing material was expensive and books could be published only by copying. Today the stresses are different but the response is familiar.

When you are forced to compress your message into fewer words, each word works harder, carries more meaning on its shoulders and, accordingly, becomes more important and interesting. Digital English is no good for poetry or novels, but on balance it's refreshing.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of English? Linguists take it as axiomatic that English-- as with any language-- is constantly evolving. Language purists, however, bemoan the various ways in which the language changes. The difference between these detached observers (the linguists), on one hand, and the so-called "language Nazis" (the purists), on the other, is the difference between descriptivism and prescriptivism. A linguistic descriptivist simply describes what's happening to language; a prescriptivist, by contrast, considers him- or herself to be an authority on the proper forms of that language: s/he prescribes the correct forms and usage.

Every English teacher is at least a partial prescriptivist in that sense, concerning him- or herself with proper and coherent forms of self-expression. Every dictionary, meanwhile, is both descriptivistic and prescriptivistic: dictionaries describe language as it's spoken and written in that dictionary's era (invoking histories and etymologies along the way), but they also act as authorities on proper usage, spelling, pronunciation, etc. We don't merely read dictionaries; we consult them.

I've written quite a few posts on this blog that are prescriptivistic in tone. It might surprise students to learn that I'm also a bit of a descriptivist: I believe that language has a structure, and that there are proper and improper forms of expression, but I also think it's only natural for language to evolve. That is the way of things-- the way of the Force, as Yoda might say. Shakespeare sounds old because language constantly changes; the 1950s expression "Daddy-o" sounds old to young ears (it sounds old to my ears, since I was born in the late 1960s!); even expressions from the 70s, like "Right on!" and "Keep on truckin'!" sound antiquated. How many students nowadays would be able to use 1980s high-school slang with a straight face? "You dweeb!" "You spaz!" Who talks like that anymore? Even 1990s slang like "Whoop-- my bad" sounds a bit hackneyed. In 2012, portmanteaux rule: slammed-together word combos that express complex concepts in a single compound. In 2012, we've got frenemies and we're chillaxin'; ambivalent people can be forgainst something. By 2020, those same portmanteaux might seem embarrassingly cliché.

Take a step back from the lexical swirl, though, and notice that most of the linguistic evolution is occurring only at the superficial level of slang. Basic structures-- e.g., syntax-- take much longer to change. Shakespeare is still comprehensible after 500 years because we moderns still use the same basic grammar and most of the same basic vocabulary.

So I don't think Mr. Gelernter is wrong to note that English needs to be shaken up every now and then. But we also need to remember that speaking and writing a language don't mean speaking or writing whatever we want, however we want. If I point at a bird and yell "Police car! Police car!", who can blame any observers for thinking I'm crazy? Language evolves, but this doesn't remove the notion of right and wrong from language learning.



Charles said...

This sentence boggled me: "In the 1980s and '90s, email saved the personal letter from extinction by moving it online."

Personal letters (by which I assume he means handwritten, posted letters) were made more or less obsolete because we developed new modes of communication. Had we not developed these new modes of communication, personal letters would have remained as popular as ever. It would be more accurate to say that email, for better or worse, replaced personal letters as the preferred form of interpersonal communication. But to paint email as the savior of something that wasn't in danger until email came along seems a bit tortured.

Also: "'You spaz!' Who talks like that anymore?"

*sheepish grin*

(I still say "my bad," too. I think my English fell into a tar pit in 1995 and has been perfectly preserved ever since.)

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mine English is antediluvian . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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