The written word reflects the developing way people communicate
Illustration by Jennifer Vo
Traditionalists believe the written word has suffered irreparably from our texting, blogging, and emailing habits. These people cringe at the sight of omitted punctuation, missing capitalization, and misuse of common expressions, lamenting over any shred of evidence that technology has forever changed the English language.
While it’s true that our language is changing at an incredible pace, we shouldn’t bemoan the changes. English is alive and well, and with recent changes it might even be attaining new levels of sophistication and complexity.
The development of English is nothing new. The language has undergone several similar, if not more drastic changes in the past. Old English dialects found in Beowulf, “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum” is just as different from Chaucer, “Ful wys is he that kan himselve knowe,” as Shakespeare would be to the modern reader.
The emerging textspeak of young people, “LOL just got my nails done with my BFF,” is merely another step in a process that has spanned well over 2,000 years.
Due to its long and complex history, English seems to have developed a resilience and flexibility that has allowed it to emerge as the most universal language in the world. Its presence on the global stage makes it particularly susceptible to new words and formulations, but this trait also makes it more adaptable and likely to remain a linguistic power.
This is of little comfort to professors, who put in long hours correcting our assignments and papers. Many of them believe their scribbles of red pen are signs that texting and emailing will be our ultimate undoing. Students, they say, have lost the ability to write in academic and professional settings.
Students might be struggling to express themselves clearly in academic forms of writing, but it’s not the fault of texting and emailing. It’s because our educational system has not caught up with the speed at which students now communicate. Nothing says we can’t go to school, learn the formal rules of language, and then head home and text a friend. That’s like saying all lawyers have to speak just as lifelessly at home as they do at work.
Informal dialect is nothing new. People shouldn’t treat the abbreviated nature of technological dialogue like it’s a modern phenomenon. That’s not to say standardizing language has become meaningless. In fact, it’s probably more important today than it ever was, due to the amazing speed at which change can happen. But even the authorities of language have started to recognize the importance of common usage in establishing the rules.
On its website, the Oxford English Dictionary explains that now looks to include words that have entered common usage. That’s why its online dictionary has already adopted words like “selfie,” “twerking,” and “me time.” The website’s approach has become more democratic than authoritative.
It’s time for critics to put away their red pens and lay off the blame. Our language reflects our time and culture. It should look different than it did 50 years ago.