Shouldn’t we let our language evolve?

08Jun10

text messagingToday, the Times Online put up a story called, ‘Pedants’ revolt aims to protect English from spell of txt spk‘.

If you haven’t read it, then in brief, it talks about an ‘Academy of English’ that is being formed by the ‘Queen’s English Society‘ to, I quote, “protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation”.

Now, like Stephen Fry, I was very disappointed to hear about this. If you take a look back through the history of the English language, no attempt to fully standardise the language and prevent change has ever been successful. And it never will  – no single organisation or body could ever get the reach and audience it needed to fully halt the development of English.

The real question here for ME is – why does it matter if the language grows and changes? I know what you’re all thinking, because I thought it too; “Text speak is horrendous. I for one write all my texts in full sentences! Incorrect use of the apostrophe is an abomination…” and so on. But why do we really feel this way?

As human beings, we don’t really like change. Change is bad, and seeing a new generation of people using language in a way we’re not used to makes us feel uncomfortable. What the ‘kids’ are doing, is developing their own language for communication that is more efficient and socially exclusive (to us oldies, that is). By using text speak with one another, they can still make themselves understood while simultaneously creating a feeling of solidarity and ‘community’.

And I for one don’t have a problem with this. Sure, it’s hard to decipher, but I think that’s the point. My boyfriend’s daughter (who is 13) can read and write in fluent ‘text speak’. The conversations she has with her friends on Facebook are almost unintelligible to me.  But they understand each other perfectly, and most importantly, it doesn’t make her any less able to communicate with me in person or to carry out her school work.

In fact, the course I’m studying with the OU shows that many teachers note that the more fluent writers of text speak in their classes are often the highest performers. Maybe this is as a result of their increased contextual sensitivity – they know when to use which variety of English and the relative status their choices afford them.

In the broader context of language being ‘bastardised’ generally, I’m not sure there’s any such thing. I believe that 100 years ago, when the langauge was developing as quickly as ever, many of the ‘older’ generations were appalled at the use of language by the youth of that day. And so it will continue forever, as language shifts and changes to suit the technological and social needs of an extremely fast moving world.

One of the arguments against the misuse of words and apostrophes is how it actively changes ‘meaning’. For example, the same sentence can mean four different things thanks to our friend the apostrophe:

  • My sister’s friend’s dog
  • My sisters’ friend’s dog
  • My sister’s friends’ dog
  • My sisters’ friends’ dog

But, overall, the meaning of any sentence is far more likely to be derived from its context than from the use of punctuation. I would argue that it’s only in the rarest of cases that the misuse of an apostrophe would  lead to a misunderstanding; however frustrating it might be for those grammarians out there.

Literacy catThe same can be said for those who are fiercely protective of words being misused, such as ‘literally’ or ‘disinterested’. The other day on Twitter, @LiterallyTsar pulled me up on my own usage of the word when I said, “it appears that I’m literally falling apart at the seams”. Of course I was not, owing to the fact that I don’t have seams. I felt strangely annoyed by this random judgment made of my language use by a stranger, and felt protective over MY language choices, being as though it is a) a very common use of the word (albeit ‘incorrect’) and b) extremely obvious from the context of my utterance that it was in fact, not meant literally.

Once a word is used regularly enough to mean something different to its original definition, it will eventually be accepted and dictionaries will reflect the change. Once a mistake is made enough times, it becomes ‘correct’. Once ‘literally’ has been abused to such an extent that it can’t be used to mean, well, ‘literally’ anymore, then I doubt the population will suddenly panic at not having the necessary vocabulary to express themselves. They will instead find new words to replace the lost ones, and expand the meanings of existing words to cope.

I’d like to conclude this essay-like offering by saying that I too have those cringes when I see a misused apostrophe, misplaced capital letters and excessive use of commas (of which I’m often guilty). I can’t stand text speak and I think the kids today sound daft. But simultaneously, I feel strongly about the evolving nature of English and feel no need to try and ‘protect’ it from moving on like it always has.

So next time you feel like being pedantic towards someones grammar or spelling, try and consider, why does it really matter? Aside from our own judgments of people’s intelligence, level of education or class based on their ability to write well (a whole other topic for discussion!), was their message any less clear for it?

Update 04/09/2012 – apparently, a study has found that txt spk doesn’t affect children’s use of grammar!

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4 Responses to “Shouldn’t we let our language evolve?”

  1. 1 Peterkin

    Very interesting post, and I totally agree with you (and Stephen Fry) about the evolution of language. It’s incredibly important and if we try and turn ourselves into some kind of living time capsule then we’ll never advance. Shakespeare committed to paper thousands of words that had never been documented before – if he hadn’t have done so (i.e. been forced to only use words that were considered ‘proper’ English) we’d be missing such wonderful gems as ‘puking’ and ‘blushed’. We also wouldn’t have had the word ‘Defriend’ added to the OED this year.

    However, txt spk strikes me as something different. It suggests to me a certain laziness in communication. It also represents a big problem with the world today – our eagerness to do everything as quickly and simply as possible. What’s wrong with spending an extra few seconds composing something that makes sense, something that shows the person you’re writing to that you really give a toss about what you’re saying to them – and ultimately, that you care about their response?

    It also matters that someone knows about proper spelling, grammar and sentence structure because it’s part of the bigger picture. I can’t show you hard evidence that studying Shakespeare’s histories at university has made me a better writer, editor and all round communicator, but I know that by learning about literature and language, and practising it, it has. Just as my GCSE in Latin – a pointless, dead language, some might say – helped me understand sentence structure and increased my vocabulary.

    I don’t know. Perhaps I am just an old fuddy duddy after all. But I’m one that can speak and write well, at least.

    (bloody hope there aren’t any S&G errors in my post now)

    • Thanks Julia, your response is also very interesting!

      I’m glad you agree that we shouldn’t try to hold back the evolution of English. But I’m particularly interested in what you said about text speak – and how you see it as a sign of laziness. I think your following point – about how we have an eagerness to do everything quickly and simply – is born largely from the increase in technology and social networking that we’re all constantly involved in (text messages, Twitter, Facebook etc); all encouraging us to say what we need to in the shortest possible space/time. The words are shrinking to enable us to say more in less space and in less time. I too write my texts in full sentences, but they often run into 2/3 texts – for the teen on a budget, can they afford to waste 30p on a text?

      As for the writing/spelling correctly, despite the tone of my post, I do agree with you. For me, I take ‘pride’ in being able to write a piece that reads well while also being grammatically correct, but overall, people will be judged on their ability to write both during their education and later, professionally. As a result, it will be beneficial for most people to have a good grasp of writing. I don’t think it’s easy though, and people shouldn’t be made to feel stupid about making small errors, as eventually it can put them off writing altogether!

      • 3 Becky

        A very well-articulated piece that raises some interesting points. I have to admit that my opinions and hypocrisies match yours, but maybe that’s because we’re related?

        My weakness is also comma abuse but add to that a manic enthusiasm for (brackets).

        I disagree with Peterkin’s analysis that textspeak is lazy (although it is a given that all teenagers are, by their nature, lazy (but evidence is emerging that this is a real physiological issue :http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/emotions/teenagers/sleep.shtml )). Texting, like Twitter, was designed to be a quick and concise way of communicating, and teens, through their ingenuity and thanks to their amazingly elastic minds have been creative enough to not only cre8 these words and phrases, but to use them to great effect. As with all communications, the vital point is that the message that is being sent is understood by the receiver. Why on earth should they be expected to write something out in full if it is not necessary. No one is grading their text messages.
        The important point with da youf of today is that they are able to switch registers from informal text and verbal banter to a more formal written mode when required, and perhaps this is where they are falling foul….but then every generation has the view that the standards of the upcomers are falling and that we’re all going to hell in a handcart (or something)!

      • Hi Becky. I don’t think that we agree because we are related – maybe just because we both study languages?

        I agree with what you say about text speak, but I don’t think it comes across as being ‘ingenius’ to our generation as ‘text speak’ feels like a ‘dumbing down’ of the language; whether it actually is or not is another matter. As in my post and your comment though, I think the ‘youf’ (as you put it) are adapting to the world as it currently stands and doing a pretty efficient job of it.

        Switching registers is something we all do on a regular basis, and of course some of us are ‘better’ at it than others! I think this is part of the reason why English teaching in schools is shifting towards ‘literacy’ instead of more literature based curricula; to help children navigate these linguistic mine fields.


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