Saturday, July 09, 2016

FYI: It's the end of the world as we know it

All of these new-fangled technologiestexting, emojis, email, social networking and the likeare destroying our ability to communicate. They're making it impossible for young people to concentrate, to speak and write grammatically, and to communicate effectively; in the end, they're doing serious harm to the very language itself.


 Or so say many. As one teacher complained about his students, “They use ‘cuz’ instead of ‘because,’ and IDK instead of ‘I don’t know.’ They’re shortening their lingo instead of using proper English." (I'll just point out that "lingo" is itself a shortened term derived from Portuguese via the Latin Lingua Franca.)

Jacquie Ream, a former teacher and the author of K.I.S.S.: Keep It Short and Simple, noted, “We have a whole generation being raised without communication skills.” She and others contend that texting is destroying the way young people think and write.

And yet, the destruction seems awfully . . . slow. Technology has apparently been ruining the language for quite a while now—many dozens or hundreds or even thousands of years. And yet here we (and it) still are. You would think that, by now, technology would have succeeded in destroying the language. Perhaps it needs to work harder; apparently, destroying a language—or our ability to use a language—is not as easy as it looks.

There have always been plenty of critics ready to point out the dangers that new technologies pose to our ability to communicate and to think. And they have been ready for a very long time, beginning with the most foundational technologies—ones that predate the iPhone and texting and Facebook not by years, but by centuries.

Writing itself, for instance. In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates recounting a story in which the inventor of writing seeks a king's praise. But instead of praising him, the king says, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.”

So, at least for some people, even the invention of writing horrified the older generation. It was, after all, a new technology, and one which completely altered the acquisition, storage, and dissemination of information. Talk about a game-changer—and you know how we old people hate change.

And that's always how it goes; the younger generation adopts new tools, while the older generation looks on aghast, certain that what they're witnessing presages the end of our ability to think, to work, to communicate.

These days we're fine with writing. In fact, it's the demise of writing we're worried about.

In another recent development, it turns out that the use of pictures (such as emoticons and emojis) to replace words confusesand perhaps angerssome people. British journalist and actress Maria McErlane told The New York Times that she was “deeply offended" by emoticons. "If anybody on Facebook sends me a message with a little smiley-frowny face ... I will de-friend them ... I find it lazy. Are your words not enough?” Ms. McErlane apparently has a very short temper and way too much time on her hands.

Invented in 1982 by Scott E. Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, the first emoticon was a sideways smiley face made up of a colon, a hyphen, and a right-parenthesis. It was created explicitly to add information to plain text messages, the underlying context of which might otherwise be misunderstood. (Was that a joke? Is he serious? Should I be angry? WHAT DID HE MEAN BY THAT?! OMG!) 

And thus began the end of the world as we know it. I mean, not counting Socrates and such.

John McWhorter, with whom I traded emails while researching Leveling the Playing Field, is a linguistics professor at Columbia University. He has studied texting and writingand communication in generaland he says that we're looking at this whole texting thing all wrong. Texting, says Dr. McWhorter, isn't writing at all, and thus has little or no effect on writing. Texting, says McWhorter, is actually "fingered speech."

In McWhorter's view, rather than being a bastardized form of writing, texting is more akin toand follows fairly closely the rules ofspoken language, complete with its shortcuts, telegraphic delivery, fragmented utterances, and the use of "body language" (in this case, emoticons, emojis, and the like) to clarify and add context to an otherwise potentially ambiguous communication.

Many of us seem to think of texting as something less than writing, something that represents some sort of communicative decline, but McWhorter insists that this is not so. “We think something has gone wrong, but what is going on is a kind of emergent complexity.” (Check out Dr. McWhorter's TED address here.)

Which may be a way of saying that my granddaughter was right. During a discussion of this topic, she suggested that perhaps what we're seeing is not the death of one language, but the birth of a new one.

Of course, there are almost certainly other problems caused or exacerbated by technology and social media; there's even an argument that so-called social media has, ironically, made us less socialbut that's a topic for another post, or perhaps another book. But for now, it appears that our students' inability to communicate does not seem to have been caused by new technologies. If we're encountering young people who no longer know how to punctuate, how to write a coherent sentence, or how to craft a cohesive essay (and I see such students daily), perhaps we should look elsewhere for the cause; it may turn out to be a failure of some other system.

5 comments:

  1. I just finished a linguistics paper reaearching emoticons and emojis in CMC and other electronic communication. In some way as, they're a return to hieroglyphic language as well as a complement to the creativity of language. Researchers have begun to compile a corpus to indentify when and how they're used. It's an interesting new frontier for descriptive linguists. Perscriptivists should take a chill pill 😜

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    1. Prescriptivists - boo! I was thinking the same thing - there's a connection between emojis/emoticons and hieroglyphics and pictographs. Maybe people who text with lots of emojis could argue that they're just being "traditional." :)

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  2. And then there is the lost art of actually writing and even reading in cursive. :-)

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    1. Interestingly, although cursive is not in the federal standards, many states have chosen to teach it, and are certainly allowed to do so. There definitely seems to have been a bit of a backlash against NOT teaching it.

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  3. I noticed a few years ago that my younger friends weren't answering their phones any more. They had moved from talking to texting. This suggests that your granddaughter and Professor McWhorter are right and we have a new way of communicating, marginally akin to ASL, rather than a debasing of "writing."

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