On the evolution of the written word

I’m somewhat of a stickler for grammar – most recently, it seems, the difference between ‘alumni’ (meaning a group of people who have graduated from an institution), and ‘alumnus’ (it’s singular form). Language has always been something of an interest of mine – the etymology of words, the differences between languages, and the way language can be used in clever, impassioned, and inspiring ways (in the last couple of weeks, I have taken a shine to spoken-word poetry. To the people who’s influence that is, you know who you are).

One of my favourite literary quotes comes from the late Douglas Adams – most famous for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of radio shows (and later books). It is a quote from The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of texts retrieved from Adams’ computer after he died, the bulk of which was turned into an Arthur Dent story. The quote goes like this:

Even he, to whom most things that most people would think were pretty smart were pretty dumb, thought it was pretty smart.

— Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

I love that quote mostly because it looks like it shouldn’t make sense, but is in fact (as all of Adams’ work) grammatically perfect.

What, though, has a quote from a relatively obscure sci-fi book got to do with anything? Well, earlier today I was watching a TED playlist¬†on the subject of words. One of these talks, by linguist John McWhorter, was discussing whether the increasing popularity of ‘text-speak’ is slowly killing the English language. As someone who tries to pride himself in upholding the beauty of a perfectly constructed piece of grammar, I was intrigued to see what McWhorter had to say. It’s not that I don’t like text-speak – I use ‘lol’ more than pretty much anyone I know – I just make sure I use it with proper punctuation.

The thing is, and the talk made me realise this within the context of language, is that I love shiny new things. So in that respect, I’m somewhat of a paradox (you might say ‘hypocrite’ but ‘paradox’ makes me sound cool and mysterious, so I’m sticking with it). Texting is an evolution of the way we communicate, and so the more I thought about it, the more hypocritical – sorry, paradoxical – I find myself. Take hashtagging, for example, a convention started by Twitter. For a hashtag in a tweet to work, it can’t have any spaces or punctuation. It’s a grammatical nightmare. If I wanted to turn the phrase “Will is having grammatical problems!” into a hastag, I’d have to do a number of things. Firstly, I’d have to take out the spaces or the hashtag would just be “#Will”. Then I’d have to lose the exclamation mark, which would leave me with “#Willishavinggrammaticalproblems”. The thing is though, to keep good twitter form, I’d want to make that as short as possible. I would certainly have to turn “Will is” into “Will’s”, which brings up the whole issue of removing the apostrophe denoting the abreviation, but that would only save me one measly character. So I’d probably reword it to something like “#Willsgotgrammarissues” – much more conducive to a format that limits one to 140 characters. Also, nobody put capital letters in a hashtag, so it would probably end up as “#willsgotgrammarissues”.

Here lies the interesting part (you can debate amongst yourselves how loosely that term was used): I have no issue doing that. I have no issue with it, despite the fact that my name is a proper noun, that I haven’t announced the fact that I’ve truncated a word, or that I don’t ‘got’ grammar issues, I ‘have’ grammar problems. It seems will to conform to the rules of Twitter outweighs – in this case – my will to adhere to the rules of English grammar.

That’s the crux of the problem with grammar. Just as people know whether you are talking about one alumnus, or many alumni, based on the context of the conversation, so too can people work out what you mean when you turn a phrase into a hastag, or drop the vowels in a word to fit it into a text message. Language evolves based on how we use it – the context in, and the medium by, which it is delivered. We romanticise ‘Olde English’, with its ‘ye’ and ‘thou’ and ‘forsooth’ but we forget that these have turned in the much more user-friendly ‘the’ and ‘you’ and… actually yea I have no idea what ‘forsooth’ means…

And there again – ‘yea’. That’s not a word. Its the phonetic spelling of a sound of affirmation. A verbal bastardisation of ‘yes’. It has no place in the written word. Its not even grammatically sound – I’m saying ‘yes’ to a negative point.

Yet that is how language is evolving. This isn’t an essay I’m writing, its a blog post; a semi-stream of consciousness born of an idea I had watching a video. Language – particularly the written word – is bound by grammar because we can reflect on it and keep it for posterity. Just as you want your graduation photos to look perfect because they are going to be kept for a very long time, so too does one want to have the written word enshrined in a format that stands the test of time. Texting, and tweeting, and even – sadly – blogging, are all forms of communication with an inherently short lifespan. It isn’t the drafting of a piece of legislation, or the work of a great literary artist. It’s not meant to stand the test of time, but rather capture a moment of it.

One doesn’t care (unless one is particularly pedantic) if someone trips up in a speech and refers to a single graduate of an institution as ‘an alumni’ because in the spoken word the overall message is what lingers in the mind, not the delivery.

McWhorter makes another interesting point; because people write formally in one manner, and informally in another, there is actually research that posits this has a similar impact on the brain as being bi-dialectal or bi-lingual. In other words, one’s ability to write in text-speak has similar positive effects on the brain as an ability to write in, say, French. He uses this very striking example to show the amazing evolution our language as undergone in a very short space of time:

“If somebody from 1973 looked at what was on a dormitory message board in 1993, the slang would have changed… but they would understand what was on that message board. Take that person from 1993… and they read a typical text written by a 20 year old today, often they would have no idea what half of it meant, because a whole new language has developed by our young people…”

— John McWhorter: Txting is killing language. JK!!!

(The full TED talk, incidentally, can be found here)

It’s true. Earlier in the talk he makes reference to ‘lol’ and to various other ‘words’ that have sprung up, not necessarily to abbreviate, or because we are lazy, but because we subconsciously know that text lacks all of the subtleties of face-to-face communication. Innovation, I would say, in its most day-to-day form.

So long live the evolution of language!

But if you think that’s going to make me stop correcting your grammar at every opportunity, you are gravely mistaken.