Death by Elocution


Wat r u talkin bout?

Wat r u talkin bout?

If you read the title to this article and thought it was going to be about capital punishment and the electric chair, you’ve already illustrated my point. Linguists agree that all language changes organically and the English language is no exception. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Language is like human skin in that it adapts to our needs. Advancements in technology, culture and social values are reflected in how a group of people communicate those changes. Typically the rate of change of most languages is relatively slow, with only a handful of new words or expressions being “officially” adopted by dictionary publishers annually. However, in the past 20-25 years we’ve seen drastic modifications in spelling, punctuation, grammar combined with a grand influx of new terms. Texts, emails and instant messages have created a whole subset of the English vocabulary and some people (like myself) have concerns regarding the degradation of an important and beautiful language. Contemporary alterations could hinder global communications, reduce our ability to organize and express our ideas as well as impede our capacity to compose resplendent literature.

If constant language revision is typical, why be concerned about it? To be clear, it’s not just the types of changes that are occurring that are of concern, but the rate at which it is happening that some feel could pose problems. An article from The Economist discusses this issue:

…could technology (or a simple increase in youthful insouciance and lack of respect for tradition) mean that in some ages it [The English language] changes faster than in others? Is change accelerating? In this case, a real problem could arise. Even if language change is not harmful, the faster language changes, the less new generations will be able to understand what their forebears wrote.

The importance of consistency in language is easily demonstrated by comparing words common in England versus some by those who use “American” English. For example, In America, we say apartment. In England it’s a flat. In America we say cookie. In England it’s a biscuit. If you ask for pudding in America, you’ll get a creamy, sweet custard substance. In England, the same word could mean any kind of dessert. The difference in locution just between two countries that both use essentially the same language can cause confusion. Imagine the challenges created if certain subgroups of people altered English to such a degree that the language splintered into what almost could be considered multiple dialects. Even if you thought you spoke “English” you could find yourself struggling to understand someone who also spoke “English” as though they were speaking a foreign language.

English is the third most spoken language worldwide and is considered to be the favored language in global business. In fact, the Forbes magazine article states that a new report found:

[In business] …English will maintain and grow its dominance, moving from “a marker of the elite” in years past to “a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship.”

Since English is such an important and commonly used global language, certain care must be taken to protect it from change that is too rapid in order to maintain a certain consistency.  Grammar rules state that jargon should not be used in formal or business writing. It is considered improper, unprofessional, confusing and since jargon can change quickly (do you know of anyone that still uses words like “groovy”, “far out”, “keen” or “swell”?) it can become outdated. Slang often has specific meaning within subgroups of society, but may not have universal connotations and thus lead to misunderstood communications. Consider that just a few decades ago, the word “bad” referred to something negative. Now it can refer to something negative or positive. The positive association was, at first only used by the younger generation and older generations had difficulty in understanding its changing meaning.

My brain hurts!

My brain hurts!

Internet jargon is characterized by what some feel is simple laziness. It developed from a sort of shorthand. For instance, in place of the words “You are” the phrase might be shortened to “ur”.  Numbers can be used to represent words, parts of words or  letters that resemble the numbers (using the number 3 in place of upper case “E” for example.) By reducing and mangling our words, we begin to not only destroy the beauty of structured writing but we diminish the number of “tools” we have to express concepts. Words are the building blocks of thought and when we limit our speech, we constrict our ability to communicate ideas. George Orwell understood this very well and introduced the world to the concept of “Newspeak”. In his book 1984, Orwell’s dystopian society is ruled by a totalitarian government that would change and limit language as a way of controlling the public’s ability to think and express themselves which ultimately made the masses easier to control.

Grammar Nazi or just common sense?

Grammar Nazi or just common sense?

What else is lost when we adopt this more Spartan form of expression? English can be conveyed with such richness that it invokes a myriad of  images and concepts when employed with mastery. Envision the works of the great poets if modern internet jargon were used to craft them instead of the colorful metaphors and alliterative juxtapositions that painted the canvas of our minds with millions of vernacular hues. Both meaning and artistry would be stripped away from each line. Most of our great literary works would not only become difficult for future generations to appreciate, but the styles in which they were written would be lost. We might even see the end of such eclectic wordsmiths as e.e. cummings and Dr. Seuss.

I do not like green eggs and ham

I do not like green eggs and ham

Some may criticize my perspective and suggest that I am clinging to the “old guard” mentality and that my reluctance to embrace linguistic metamorphosis is a reflection of my age. I contend that current alterations in verbal and written communications pose a detriment to global understanding, cognitive formations and the inherent beauty of language. I would see the grisly demise to “Internetspeak” by bringing awareness to the importance of improving the style and manner in which we communicate and challenging my fellow citizens to reject the trend towards sloppy and lazy writing. Language will always change, but we still have the ability to guide the direction and way in which it manifests itself.

~V

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One thought on “Death by Elocution

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