Monday, January 5, 2009

Cn U Rd Ths Msj?

After face-to-face conversation, messages seem to be the most prevalent form of communication between individuals today. Instant messaging, text messaging, chat rooms, even voice mail and e-mail—all are characterized by brevity. And to avoid carpal tunnel and texter’s thumb, the latest ailments attributable to technology, message writers are inventing more and more abbreviations and acronyms, and capitals are being guillotined.

c u 2nite. Luv ya. LOL. IMHO. OMG! The list gets longer every week. Communication doesn’t involve words so much as mnemonics for them. These modern technoglyphics are very useful and kind of fun, unless you’re an old fuddydud and can’t wring meaning out of BFF. But what happens when texters sit down to write a formal communication? Do the mnemonics morph back into real words?

The teenager who gets with his girlfriend by pager or busily texts OMG squeals to her BFFs all day long may have a problem when the teacher demands an essay written on paper in the classroom or a report prepared at home on paper or computer. Will he correctly translate c u 2nite into See you tonight? Will she remember how to spell love? Will they produce half-breed monsters—See you tonite or Luv you? What happens when they compose blogs? Will they be so replete with technoglyphic shorthand they become incomprehensible or even just unreadable?

Spelling has always been the bugbear of the English language. Throughout its history, the way words were spelled tended to be rather freeform and individual. The spread of education to the emergent middle class vastly increased the number of people writing and reading things and occasioned the appearance of the first dictionaries of English in the eighteenth century, to help the writers be comprehensible to the readers. Two hundred years of standardization followed, giving us the written English of today. Now the trend to brevity threatens to turn English into a bifurcated language, like Arabic.

Arabic exists as multiple spoken dialects, which differ greatly from region to region, and as a formal written language, which is strictly construed and not very flexible. A Moroccan and an Egyptian would have trouble understanding each other’s speech, but they can read each other’s newspaper. In the time of the caliphs who ruled from Baghdad, the grammarians were as venerated and rewarded at court as the poets, and they created a logical structure for formal Arabic that shows English up as the mongrel mix it is. Their elegant, punctilious construct makes the spelling of things simple but keeps the written and spoken languages apart as well as making written Arabic straitened and inelastic. (Oddly, written Arabic and textspeak share one characteristic: they both leave out the vowels.)

Because its pedigree is so spotty, English usage is based not on the dicta of long-ago pundits but on consensus: this is how most people have said it or spelled it, so that’s how it’s said or spelled. The lexicon easily accepts new words and new constructions, and there is lots of room for definition and argument. The dictionaries have helped establish standards of usage as well as spelling, but a standard based on consensus can change.

Do we want it to change? Will we stand firm for the standard spelling codified in the nineteenth century? Will we insist that any formal communication—a paper for school, a thank-you note to an aunt, a graphic on the television, a newspaper article—follow the rules laid down a hundred years ago? I for one would find it extremely difficult to wade through more than a few lines of textspeak, and I prefer my spelling old-style, because it’s familiar and it’s what we all agreed to when we signed on for universal literacy.

What then of this first generation of texters and bloggers? Perhaps the IM crowd, like the speakers of Arabic, will develop two distinct languages. One is the textspeak used among specific groups or cliques that imposes brevity and rewards cliché. LOL only means something if everyone knows what it means and is content to mean only that; it leaves no room for interpretation or nuance; there is no music. The other language is the highly malleable, bastard amalgam that is standard English, whose roots include Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Nordic, Amerindian, and Swahili, and the spelling of which reflects the diversity of those roots. Like formal Arabic, formal English is comprehensible to everyone because everyone has learned the same rules; unlike Arabic, even formal English has the ability to accommodate the new effortlessly.

Syntax is best served by grammar, and meaning truly suffers when we don’t put the words together right. Spelling has its place too syntactically, and if I mean too but spell it to, we have a communication breakdown. If I spell it 2, meaning is purely contextual and may have gone right out the window.

Texting and other instant communications rob the English language of its richness and complexity. Evolve your technoglyphics and increase your vocabulary of emoticons and numeral-consonant juxtapositions, if you must. But remember there is a far wider potential audience than your IM buddies, and they may not speak your very limited private lingo. Standard English has its place and serves an important purpose. Let’s keep it going till we can replace it with something better. Like telepathy.

Here’s a glossary for the truly out of touch. Cn U Rd Ths Msj, Can You Read This Message; LOL, laughing out loud; IMHO, in my humble opinion; OMG, oh, my god; BFF, best friend forever; IM, instant messaging.
This is article 2 in a continuing series.

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