Is English REALLY dying AGAIN ?

“The job of a journalist is to simplify and to exaggerate” – John Humphrys

(as recounted by David Crystal in the video below)

 

 

In the early spring it was the “Death of Dear“.

Last year it was “Internet Spells the Death of English” and “Goodbye, cruel words: English. It’s dead to me

In 2008 it was “The Death of English. LOL

Most recently, in reaction to Ralph Fiennes’s statement that twitter was “truncating” English, Forbes replied, “No Twitter Isn’t ruining the English Language” and likewise in the past week, the Wall Street Journal shares “Is Proper English Dying and Should Us Care?

 

All these references to death when clearly no other language on the planet is experiencing greater expansion.  The Wall Street Journal article sites 400 million learners in China, and below is the first image I saw upon my return from China earlier this week.

HSBC ad in french says “5X as many English learners in China than in England”

 

So, either English has 9 lives, or another question looms forward from Fiennes and others:

 

Is our English,

our own beautiful English,

suffering from the internet, from new speakers, from TWITTER ?

 

For me, the core of the question lies in the “our” and I’ve already addressed it on the blog with “Whose English is Right“.  So today, I’ll share my thoughts again, but first, in the words of Noam Chomsky, we will “read widely and critically” and see how 5 well-known linguists view the subject specific to twitter.

 

David Crystal


He’s written a book on the subject of electronic media and its impact on the English language, aptly called “Txtng: the Gr8 Db8” where he argues against the popular belief that texting leads to poor literacy among young learners.

Here we see him speak eloquently on the subject.

 

 

1) @25:00 he is asked a fundamental question, one which I think burned Fiennes and also Chomsky, as you’ll see below: “Are twitter and such fast mediums of communication changing our cognitive capabilities and social lives ?

“It’s too soon.  20 years of internet cannot fundamentally change cognitive abilites.  But in face of these fears, the proper response is management. AND the people who are the managers are the TEACHERS.”

2) 30:00 “The main development in the English Curriculum in the past 20 years has been to inculcate into kids a notion of “appropriateness”  of language, replacing the older black and white or CORRECT/INCORRECT concept of language by a more sophisticated notion that every style of language has its purpose.”

 

Noam Chomsky

 

As seen within this article by Laureano Ralon and Alex Eljatib:

What is the importance of social media as a gateway for dissident voices, and what do you make of the contradiction that many of these outlets for “self-expression” are supported by one of the most powerful corporations on earth?

Well, it does not matter who supports them if they play no role in how they function. Of course, that is very unlikely to be the case; we have just seen it in the WikiLeaks case, where Amazon for example refused access to it. So if there is control by a sector of power, state or private, then you can be pretty confident that it is going to be misused. In fact, it should be under popular control; but in the existing society – which has very high concentrations of power – then access to social media can be a positive force. It has negative aspects too in my opinion, but in general it is fairly positive.

What are some of those negative aspects?

Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication – which requires knowing the other person, knowing what the other person is thinking about, thinking yourself of what you want to talk about, etc. It is not a medium of a serious interchange.

AND another article by Jeff Jetton:

Do you think people are becoming more comfortable communicating through a device rather than face to face or verbally?

Noam Chomsky: My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.

 

Mark Liberman


A UPenn linguist who co-runs LanguageLog (a blog I thoroughly enjoy) has also chimed into the recent Fiennes-twitter debate.  In this article he’s examined the length of words in Hamlet, a number of PG Wodehouses’s stories and the 100 most recent tweets from the Daily Pennsylvanian (UPenn’s student newspaper).  His findings demonstrate the opposite of truncation, a certain elongation in average word length when comparing Hamlet and UPenn students’ tweets (3.99 vs 4.80 avg characters).  A small pool one could say, though point taken all the same, which leads directly into our next linguist’s comment.

 

Ben Zimmer


Another contributor to LanguageLog and to the New York Times, Ben Zimmer here discusses the “new science” of Twitterology and its interesting studies within sociolinguistics and social psychology.

“Mr. Chomsky['s] blanket charge… ignores the diversity of voices to be found on Twitter. Regardless of how unserious Twitter exchanges may appear on the surface, many of Mr. Chomsky’s fellow linguists are discovering that Twitter can help uncover truths about our social interactions that are quite serious indeed.”

 

John MchWhorter

 

I’m currently re-reading John’s book called The Power of Babel and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  To bring the discussion to a more global level, I offer a quote from good ol’ page 13:

Language evolution is not geared toward improvement. Instead, languages change like the lava clump in the lava lamp: always different but at no point differentiable in any qualitative sense from the earlier stage. The process is better termed transformation than evolution.

In an article about the rise of African-American use of twitter, McWhorter cites the “constant well of verbal creativity” as one of his favorite observations of twitter.

 

 

Oh… and…  finally here I come to chime in, thrilled by the juxtaposition to my heros of sorts ;-)

I have always been an advocate of the simple phrase, “It’s not the tool, it’s how we use it” which I believe is what Crystal is hitting on when he speaks of management.  And yet I’m torn because I also see the validity in  ”the medium is the message”.  Does the brevity, and ‘hotness of the medium’ (à la Postman/McLuhan) create a vacuum of attention, and down the road, diminish cognitive ability ?

Personally, twitter has been an amazing tool for my professional development, however it’s really only been the gateway, connector or pathway to content; a means to an end, not the place of development in and of itself.

And yet, I wonder if most readers digested the entirety of this post. It’s sort of long for a blog post, though it’s only 1208 words.  Have our attention spans indeed diminished due to these hot mediums ? I won’t be the first to throw a stone as I quite often skim articles on the internet unless truly drawn in.  In comparison, I wonder… if I had handed the same article to someone on a piece of paper 10 years ago, would it’ve garnered more attention ?

 

Oh, and I’m just as interested to hear what you think… so… whaddya say ?

 


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  • http://twitter.com/RoadToGrammar RoadToGrammar

    English isn’t dying and I doubt ‘proper’ English is dying either.

    These trends come and go.

    Truncated English came about because of text messaging and Twitter.

    Now, with touch-based Smartphones, when you type a word, there’s the auto-complete feature. So it’s actually EASIER to type the long version of the word (since autocomplete doesn’t recognise    the short forms).

    The word OK comes from ‘oll korrect’ during a fad for changing spelling in the 1800s. ‘Toy-r-us’  didn’t ruin English in the 80′s.

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Thanks for stopping by !  I agree 100% with your thoughts and ”Oll Korrect” has always been one of my favorite ‘etymologies that seem implausible’.

    Speaking of etymologies, I decided to eliminate one from this post, though I had really wanted to include it: PROPER (shied away from making the post any longer, or taking it off topic)

    (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=proper&searchmode=none)

    Proper as “socially appropriate” hand’t been recorded in English before 1704. Before its meaning was something personal, something peculiar to onself. In french we say, “c’est son propre vélo” meaning it’s his OWN. From latin ‘Proprius’, which also provided ‘property’ we see these original meanings of “mine”.

    So ‘Is proper english dying’ could almost be paraphrased etymologically as “Is my English dying”, “Is the specific English I love disappearing”.

    In the end, what is ‘proper’ for language can be decided by a ruling body, such as it is in French (academie française), or by dictionaries or other private organizations with greater cultural capital, as it seems to be in English.

    But in the end, there is no concreteness to proper and we all have different ideas of what it is, just as John McWhorter describes in “Power of Babel”, how we all play by our own rules when it comes to Monopoly… same with language.

    All that to say, thanks for the comment and stopping by !   Cheers, brad

  • http://twitter.com/seburnt Tyson Seburn

    Absolutely no death in sight, either by web tools or in popularity–I generally find blanket statements like this stem from a lack of familiarity with the tool itself or a doomsday attitude that spills over into other areas.

    I seriously doubt that truncated versions of words will ever overtake expanded, shall we say, more traditional forms in the business or academic worlds and use of it in speaking just sounds dumb (have you ever heard someone say “LOL” during a conversation? I have. And they’ll sound dated if they continue using it). 

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    UNo I agree 100%. I tnk d lingo is oviusly vry healthy, n yet I do 2nd gues d impact of ht mediums on r attn span n social interactivity. I tnk it dz av an impact + I do tnk therz a need 4 mgmt or @ least discusion, esp 4 doze yung digital natives. n d vid, David Crystal  touched on d interestin point dat 4 t yunga gNR8s d digital media s primary n books r 2ndry whereas 4 mnE of us dat gru ^ W books dey stil feel qualitatively mor impt… hmmm….

    alive, healthy and changing every day like languages do.  i love it.

  • Phil

    Fascinating post Brad. I think in the UK we are a bit more open to change than say France where they have a government body to regulate, censor and ban foreign words but that may be because of our history. If you speak to average lower class kids (sounds condescending?) they use simplified and fascinating language like betterer. Isn’t that actually easier than using all this silly irregular business. Bader and farer. You can’t stop language evolution as it’s cultural and necessity-based. it’s a tool for getting things done and the quicker and eaier the betterer. Innit?

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hey Phil !

    I agree and even mentioned l’Académie française in a comment above in response to Road2grammar.  I assume as well that more irregularities means more challenges, especially to second language learners, though I think John McWhorter, the linguist I mentioned above and  author of Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of “Pure” Standard English,  would contend the fact that versions of “betterer” of “farer” are simplified… they’re just different.

  • http://twitter.com/seburnt Tyson Seburn

    Hmm.  Perhaps.  But perhaps it causes attention span to decrease because it’s hard to decipher this as opposed to reading regular text.  Ha!

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    ;-)  I actually translated it to “textese” for giggles !

    http://www.lingo2word.com/translate.php

  • http://twitter.com/pacogascon Paco Gascón

    The very same discourse applies for all major languages, mine included (Spanish). 
    It is a complete fallacy to state that worldwide spoken languages with an increasing number of speakers are dying . Unfortunately, there are lots of endangered languages (  http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/index.php ) but they are not dying because of texting or tweeting; on the contrary, fostering their use online would be a good meassure to prevent them from definitely fading  away. 
    On the contrary, it is true that languages change: this process has been going on throughout History and it is precisely “powerful” languages – present  in different geographic areas and spoken by people with different sociocultural backgrounds – those more likely to undergo changes.  
    It should also be acknowleged that  ICT-mediated verbal communication is speeding up changes; but, as RoadToGrammar pointed out, these changes are nothing but trends that come and go, and, eventually, it is only a few of them which succeed. 
    All in all, languages cannot be judged in terms of  right/wrong: why should one think English spoken 60 years ago is inherently better than today’s English? Was Cervantes’s Spanish superior to Vargas Llosa’s? Language is a tool – in my opinion, the mightiest tool we’ve got – and it is valuable as long as it is useful. Nowadays, there are new settings for language usage and, maybe, the way language is being reshaped within these new contexts is unprecedented, but… so what?

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Well put, Paco.  And as you mentioned Cervantes vs Vargas Llosa, it’s interesting how people will compare the quality of Shakespearean English to texting today… not a fair comparison for one, but also, as you say, it’s simply misleading to use labels such as “better”.  It’s just different.  Cheers, b

  • http://www.facebook.com/authorjrnova JR Nova

    Very cool read. No way is English dying. English (as well as Spanish and Chinese) is going to be around for centuries. It’ll evolve, of course, but evolution doesn’t mean death until we look back 1,000 years.

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Thanks for your kind words, JR.

    Interesting.  I too believe that evolution is far from “death”, and even languages that are no longer “spoken” per se, could still be considered alive as they’ve transformed into something else.  Then again, that’s just the way I see things… (see more the connections than the separations).

    Cheers, Brad

  • Nelida K.

    Stumbled on this post and fully enjoyed it; and, of course, and it goes without saying, I could not resist tweeting it! And, as to the main question: no sir, it’s not dying any time soon! Look at what happened to that other lingua franca, Latin. It’s been pronounced dead, but it sort of still makes its presence felt, doesn’t it?

  • http://blog.edulang.com Brad Patterson

    Hi Nelida.  Thanks for your kind words, and yes I agree, language as Guy Deutscher calls it, is an ever-growing coral reef built on the past vestiges no longer used, so even that which is ‘gone’ is still somehow around.  I think English is probably the ‘safest’ language around as far as ‘aliveness’ goes ;-)   Cheers, Brad

  • http://www.edulang.com/blog/will-everyone-be-speaking-chinese-in-2030/ Will everyone be speaking Chinese in 2030? | A journée in language.

    [...] really it doesn’t have much founding at all, kind of like that question we saw in November: “Is English Really Dying again?”.  I think there will certainly be a surge in learners of Chinese around the world and more power [...]

  • Jsheavils

    You have the greatest name.