“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“.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 ?