Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Loss of Language

Those who first encountered the keyboard as a writer saw it as a better way to write. Since they were already accustomed to composing at length, most learned to touch type so they could do so quickly and efficiently. The advent of the word processor was the next leap forward. Editing and rewriting became a joy rather than drudgery. To writers, language is a medium just as paint is to an artist. Writers enjoy bringing creativity to the correct use of grammar and vocabulary.

On the other hand, those who first encountered the keyboard as a computer geek see it as a necessary evil to get to what they really enjoy: playing with technology. Since typing is awkward and annoying for them, they invented a shorthand so they could do less of it. From them we have things like IMHO (in my humble opinion) and ROFLMAO (rolling on the floor laughing my ass off).  As you can see, they are not very original either.

Language took it’s biggest hit when text messaging became widely used in the late nineties. You could hardly blame people for taking shortcuts when they had to type on a miniature version of a touch-tone dial pad. Who wouldn’t substitute “u” for “you” when entering the latter required pressing the 9-key (WXYZ) three times, the 6-key (MNO) three times, and the 8-key (TUV) twice? Or substituting “2” (one key stroke) for the words “to” (4 key strokes)  or “too” (7 key strokes)?

But what’s the excuse for using the same abbreviations in an email when it’s composed on the full keyboard of a computer? Could it be indifference? Next time you post something on Facebook or dash off a quick reply to an email, consider this: if it isn’t worth the extra few seconds it would take to proofread it and improve it, then it probably isn’t important enough to do at all.

As our means of communication has shifted from the slow, thoughtful discourse of the written letter to the instantaneous one-liner of the text message, the intent has also changed. We used to have longer thoughts. We used to have deeper dialogue. Now we seem to be texting the electronic version of carving our initials in a tree or drawing moustaches on subway ads. Everyone wants to jump in, say something really witty, and jump out again.

The trouble is that being clever or witty requires expressing yourself intelligently. Having lost the ability to craft language, we resort to ending every sentence with smiley faces (in the form of punctuation marks that attempt, and often fail, to resemble facial expressions) or the acronym “lol” (which no longer means anything). The fallacy which is used to justify emoticons is that since words do not convey the facial expressions and body language of face to face conversation, nobody can tell if you’re being sarcastic or attempting a joke. Thank god nobody ever told that to Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or any of the other great satirists or humorists.

People have bemoaned the degradation of language throughout literary history. Usually they are regarded as anal retentives who just don’t like things to change. But there are real consequences to the severe deterioration of language that is taking place today. People are losing their ability to communicate with each other. The evidence of this exists on every bulletin board and chat room on line today. Flame wars regularly break out as participants fail to understand each other. They seem as incapable of expressing themselves clearly as they are at understanding what they are reading.

We know from psycholinguistics that language and thought are intertwined. Our language not only reflects the culture we live in, it also shapes it. That accounts for some of the differences between western and eastern civilizations. Language is the currency of our thoughts. It allows us to solve complex problems and to survive as ever greater challenges confront us.

Eighty percent of the cortex of the brain is used for speech and language functions. As our language contracts and becomes less sophisticated, we need less and less of our cortex. What happens to the unused brain cells? If we allow our language to continue to regress, we will lose the ability to create not only great works of art, literature, and philosophy, but also the very technologies that led us to this state in the first place.

Will we become the mindless consumers of technology products invented by other cultures which have more carefully nourished their language skills?

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