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 Laura E. Reeve, Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

 

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As a purveyor, buyer, and all-around user of the English language, my attention was caught by The Telegraph article “Ralph Fiennes blames Twitter for ‘eroding’ language.” The headline pointed at Twitter but Mr. Fiennes, an English actor, blamed social networking and our society, as a whole, for dumbing down the English language.

Speaking at the BFI London Film Festival awards in Old Street, London, the actor said that modern language “is being eroded” and blamed “a world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter.”

“Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us,” he said.

Fiennes, full name Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, said that students at drama schools were especially suffering thanks to social networking sites.

“I hear it, too, from people at drama schools, who say the younger intake find the density of a Shakespeare text a challenge in a way that, perhaps, (students) a few generations ago maybe wouldn’t have.”

The ramifications here are more than the drift of “the written word” or the incorporation of slang (which both American and British English seem to embrace). His comments about drama schools indicate that current students cannot read or comprehend Shakespeare enough to deliver their lines effectively—and actors have ways to memorize soundbites if they must (when using foreign languages beyond their ken, such as the cast of Firefly having to deal with proverbs and curses in Chinese). Does this mean these students can’t even read Shakespeare aloud? I don’t know about you, but I suddenly get a picture of my first grade teacher patiently saying, “Sound it out if you don’t recognize the word.”

Should We Blame The Communications Medium?

The first defense of “text-speak” or text messaging shorthand would be: how else can somebody communicate with those crappy numeric phone keyboards? The defense of “sound bites” would be: look at Twitter and Facebook status updates—our society communicates in pithy but small sentences (although I’m not sure I’d describe “OMG! JST SW BRAD PITT WYWH” as pithy). We might say we need to communicate faster today, and that’s enabled by the medium over which we communicate. What if we consider language to be the (original) medium? Do we need to communicate ideas faster than the English language can convey?

Sorry, that’s hard to buy. A voice message could be heard as fast as a text message can be read, and certainly provided as fast as the message could be typed (depending upon the capabilities of the texter). Why not just use a voice conversation, considering we now pay more for text messages than voice minutes? (Although that might just be my phone plan.)

More Questions To Ponder After Examining History

I don’t have any answers to the questions above. And, when I look at historical examples of changes in communications modes or “technology,” I only have more questions. Consider these puzzles:

  • Shorthand was a method of rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols, used for taking dictation. The major systems were created in 1837 (Sir Isaac Pitman) and in 1888 (John Gregg), so we could easily say it was used for over a century by anyone who could employ a secretary trained in shorthand. Dictation could be taken, by hand, almost as fast as one could speak. But, to my knowledge, shorthand had very little impact upon the English language itself.
  • The telegraph (and use of morse code) opened up global communications, particularly after a reliable transatlantic cable was laid down in 1866. Morse code, of course, was employed later by radio operators and remains a fast method of communication (faster than texting, depending upon the operators). There were some unique acronyms and codes used in telegrams and morse code—but they don’t seem to have moved into the vernacular. In fact, if you take a look at telegrams of the day, they seem to employ proper English and words with more than one syllable. The only shorthand in the examples I saw (as in the one to the left, where the sender was obvious to the receiver) occurred when identifying the sender. Often, “Father,” “Mother,” “Mom,” “Dad,” “Uncle,” “Cousin,” etc. were used. Other than introducing a few new words, the telegram didn’t change our language, despite being the fastest and most terse means of communicating in its day.
  • Likewise, telephones opened up our world. Direct or long distance calls, however, were initially quite expensive. Until 2006, in fact, one could telephone to a telegraph company and “send a wire” (which was basically just a telegram) to save money. By comparison, however, the telephone wasn’t a “terse” or efficient means of communicating. By the last decades of the twentieth century, telephones were in almost constant use (as all parents of teenagers could confirm).

But none of these revolutionary means of communicating caused quick “degradation” of the English language (by comparison, I mean, because some people wouldn’t agree with that statement). Even though we had the telegraph and telephone, our society still put great store by communicating clearly, either verbally or with the written word. With the advent of email, our written communications became shorter and sloppier—perhaps this was where the “sound bite” phenomenon began?

It’s Not About the Receiving Method, Either

Sherry Turkle, in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, interviewed teens who said they like text messaging because they “won’t bother the receiver.” They can send something fast, but the receiver can ignore the message and deal with it later. It’s more polite than calling or emailing.

But I don’t buy that. I’ve been screening my calls through voice messaging since the 80s and I’ve been adept at putting off emails since the early 90s. Why not just send email from their phone, now that we’ve got web browsers and full keyboards on our phones? In fact, all our long-distance communication modes have been polite, allowing the receiver to ignore the message. The sender didn’t worry about responses when it came to telegrams, which could be crumpled up and ignored by the receiver. And, as repossession agents know, letters have always been ignored.

In her book, Ms. Turkle didn’t buy that response either. She thinks we’re evolving into a society of people who don’t really want to interface directly with each other—particularly face-to-face. The younger generations are even avoiding direct one-on-one conversations through email, blogs, and social media. Better to just throw out a status comment; then we don’t have to engage in a conversation. We don’t have to expend effort to concentrate or listen to someone’s responses.

 

So it’s not really Twitter or Facebook or our television news broadcasters that are doing this to us. We’re deliberately turning away from direct person-to-person communication and our language skills are suffering across the board: reading, speaking, writing, language comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, etc. Even acting skills are affected, as evidenced by drama school complaints.

The ability to use language is one of those qualities that define us as human. As writers, the burden comes to us to carry this torch for humanity. Have you deciphered the title yet? (“Quick question: To be or not to be?”)

Any opinions?

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