Shouldn’t we let our language evolve?
Today, 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.
The 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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Tags: grammar, queen's english, spelling