D34r Dr Grammar,
I red a bl0gpst 2day that sed txtspk is stoop n wus sayin’ why cannot kids spell nemore ? What gives ?
It seems every third blogpost on the net these days is lamenting the loss of grammar and spelling skill among the youth (as they put it), the comments fields to these posts invariably then come down to a near perfect 50/50 split between those arguing that such complaints are simply pedantry and a fear of freedom, a sort of longing for the days of the “Kings English” and pointing out that Shakespeare, the greatest English poet of all couldn’t even spell his own name the same more than once – versus those declaring that good spelling and grammar is just good manners and consideration for your readers, that anybody who ever uses txtspk will obviously never get a job, that our schools have no standards etc. etc.
Who is right ?
Well, as with just about every question on which debate rages, it keeps raging because people are trying to oversimplify it. This isn’t a right or wrong question with two simple sides. It’s a complex issue with multiple sides and historical influences. Firstly, we need to understand where each side is coming from.
When I went to school we were taught that written and spoken language are very different, that we don’t write as we pronounce, that we don’t construct sentences the same way when writing. This came about for two big reasons – firstly, until not long ago virtually all writing was the recording of information such as news, books and important letters. This meant that writing was, by it’s nature, a very formal thing in almost all cases. Secondly – only a small handful of the population was literate anyway, so writing was always the preserve of a tiny elite (this didn’t start changing until the 18th century really). So when only a small and highly educated group used the medium, it is not surprising that it was held to a very high academic standard.
As reading and writing became more commonplace, this didn’t really change the standard though – because writing was still special, we wrote school projects, curiculum vitae’s and letters to our banks. We wrote business letters, and just occasionally a letter to a penpal who would only read an respond many weeks later. It was a rare thing, done with care and attention.
But nobody spoke as we wrote, no-one in the entire history of language ever has, and if anybody tried- nobody would actually understand them – or want to. Language, both spoken and written has always been an evolving thing, because of the formal nature of writing however it evolved far slower and in fact artificial systems were created to deliberate retard it’s evolution – there was a good reason to do so, so written works would remain readable for a long time – hence concepts like “The King’s English” was invented. Since the only writing ever done was at least somewhat formal and important, and since this writing was something the average person only rarely did – it worked.
But then came the communications revolution and the internet. The first generation of internet users were highly educated because the early years of the internet was primarily an academic medium. More-over, the only major interface to it was computers with keyboards, on which nearly all the users were highly proficient (since most of them worked with keyboards all day long) – hence we didn’t see the change really start back then. Leetspeak developed but it was more a kind of subculture thing than a true trend.
It was the cellphone revolution that really changed things. Suddenly we had a generation who mostly used writing, not in any formal setting but for conversation. For them, writing was not something special and rare done with important reasons, sometimes they would write something important – but very nearly all the writing they do is conversational – a means of just chit-chatting, as transient as a greeting on the street.
To make matters worse, the major interface in use for this had a length limit of 140 characters, and no keyboard, just a very annoying keypad on which even the best typists are still really slow. They adapted, this highly informal conversational writing, took on the phraseology and grammar of spoken conversations, and it’s spelling became a form of highly phonetic shorthand.
As such, that is not a bad thing, it’s what written English would have been five centuries ago if those in power had not deliberately taken measures to control and retard the evolution of written language. Now without getting into the anarchist-language vs. controlled language debate, the reality is that one can slow the evolution of a language but it cannot be stopped. If written language deviates too far from spoken, it becomes useless so it has to follow, albeit at a slower rate and this has always been true.
The problem we face now is that this conversational style of writing is the only writing practice most youngsters get. I stand by my belief that there is nothing wrong with it, where appropriate. Using txtspk when writing an SMS is just clever, it’s natural and appropriate to the medium and the purpose of the writing. Using it to write a curiculum vitae is not – since the person reading will most likely not be from the SMS generation and will judge it a sign of low intelligence or education (regardless of whether there is any truth to this). This is gradually changing, we see professors at major universities like Oxford calling for the removal of spelling marks in tests because they applaud the liberation and true democratization of linguistics that is happening here, but for now this is still the world we live in.
In 20 years or so, when every personnel manager was a member of the SMS generation, sending your CV in what is now proper written English will be sure to have you marked as “out of touch, and too old for the job” – it will be as bad for your career as it is to send it in txtspk now ! But until that day (rue it or delight in it – but nobody can possibly prevent it) enlightened self-interest declares that txtspk English should be used only where appropriate. It is appropriate only in conversational writing – the kind created by cellphones and the net, where we are talking to our friends – like we would in a pub over a beer, and the fact that we are using a written medium is completely inconsequential and in fact if anything a hindrance. It is appropriate then to reduce that hindrance as far as possible so that the natural rapid flow of the conversation can largely survive.
It is quite acceptable, and if you aren’t a very good typist, in fact more polite, to use txtspk when on a cellphone keyboard or having a chat on IM, or even when tweeting.
It is not appropriate (at least not yet) to use txtspk when writing formal or important stuff. You shouldn’t use it to write your school assignments, you shouldn’t use it when writing a blogpost that you mean to be a serious and formal statement on a topic (even if that topic is a very casual and informal one) and you certainly shouldn’t use it for business or academic correspondence.
So that is my take on it, txtspk is just a natural human response to the idiosyncratic nature of formal written language when you try to use it to have an informal friendly discussion. When suddenly those Latinisms and archaisms of spelling that have given English one of the highest rates of dyslexia in the world become so cumbersome as to prevent meaningful conversation, rather than aid it as it does in a formal setting, but we are some ways from it being a natural and normal form of writing for most people – from in fact, it being possible to write a novel in txtspk that anybody over the age of 20 will actually be able to read (yep, I’m ten years too early myself…) – but since the youth virtually without exception has embraced it, it’s inevitable that this will change.
So Doctor Grammar’s advice, if you were writing something formal and somebody gets pedantic over the spelling of a word you got wrong, apologize and correct it. If you were having a conversational chat with a friend and the same thing happens, tell him to: g0 f4 urslf.
UPDATE: It occurred to me later that there is in fact one crucial thing our schools should be doing differently. I read articles about teachers complaining that children have lost the ability to write cursively because “all they do is type” – but none of them know how to type well. Losing the skill of handwriting is neither surprising nor a bad thing, a pen is an archaic technology now and before long it will be like that kid who was using a walkman for a week – they would just spend the entire time wondering “how on earth did people cope with this ?”. I will go so far as to say that if my grandchildren know what a pen looks like – I will be a very sad man indeed. We live in a world of typing now – but our schools are not teaching this essential skill. We used to have typing classes for girls, as part of our sexist past. Where we’d teach them to type fast and efficiently on typewriters while schooling the boys in woodworking. As the computer revolution made typists obsolete – we started teaching computer literacy, and typing classes became ancient history (this was starting even when I was in school).
Now we have a generation growing up doing 90% of their written communication by typing – and never having learned to do it well. When you are expected to hand your CV in as a typed document rather than a written one, it’s a major problem if you type with one finger. Schools need to expand computer literacy classes with good old fashioned 60-words per minute on a qwerty typing classes – now that is preparing kids with an essential skill.