Thursday, February 28, 2013

Texting Changes Things

I saw a couple having breakfast in a local eatery this morning. They were not sitting directly across from each other but at a 45 degree angle. Both he and she were facing emptiness across the table. I don’t think they looked at each other a single time while they were waiting and even during the meal. They were both zeroed in on their electronic communication devices, texting up a storm. You would have thought they were conducting some kind of urgent business because of the energy and conviction evidenced in the process. The only way I knew it was social communication on the devices was the occasional twinkle and grin from both parties—not to each other, but to themselves.

That is not the first time I have witnessed the phenomenon of closed-off private communication in an otherwise social context. It is as if some people want to control conversations to such an extent that they throw away the give-and-take skills of true discourse. It is very difficult to have rational discussions these days. At the college were I teach most students have and abundantly use fancy cell phones. They are not allowed to employ the devices in the classroom, but everywhere else on campus I see texting galore. They would be lost without these little idols, some of which are elaborately decorated to suit the personality of the owner.

And, there is a spin-off problem with such rampant cell-phone use. I am sure you have noticed that even in formal compositions, people are using texting type language. The word “you” has been replaced by “u.” The word “see” is often written as “c.” The phrase “I am going to lunch,” sometimes looks like this: “im gong 2 lnch.” The word great has a number in it: “Gr8.” “Alright” is “Aight.” I’m not sure what the long-term implications of this texting shorthand slaughter will be for Standard English, but I think things are changing more rapidly than we realize. Many are becoming more tolerant of simplified language forms. Many people spell “through” on signs like this: “Thru.” I have also seen “night” spelled “nite” on signs.

All languages have a way of simplifying themselves both in pronunciation and spelling over time. The word “Lord” for example used to be “Hlafweard” in Old English. The pronunciation and spelling changed gradually through the years. You have only to read Shakespeare or the 1611 King James Version of the Bible to understand how radically a mere 400 years can alter a language. Modern English seems a lot simpler because it is. It has become so.

The first line of Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales,” composed in the late 14th Century, looks odd, even though most eighth graders can read all but one of the words: Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote. The word “sote” is the only unfamiliar one. It means sweet—it became “soda,” a sweeting agent. We call sweet soft drinks sodas. So the line translated would be “When that April with his showers sweet…”

I’m not complaining about the way languages change over time. I just hope we can retain, or in some cases, regain the ability to have civil discourse without texting.

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