February 1, 2012

How worried should we be about text speak?


Here’s an argument that always ruffles some feathers: do the users of a language create or follow its rules?

Since the codification of languages began—the 16th century, if we’re talking about English—there have been tugs of war between grammarians who would prescribe and those who would describe the way we use words. Looking back, attempts to alter a language or control its development often look a little like a single man trying to hold back a river with his fingers. Here’s a favourite of mine: during the Inkhorn Controversyin the English Renaissance, figures like John Cheke launched impassioned campaigns against the borrowing of words from Latin for use in the English language:

I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.

It’s worth mentioning that that wily Shakespeare was one of the prime culprits in this Latinisation of English. While some of the more outlandish borrowings have naturally fallen by the wayside, of course we owe the fertility of the language to the incorporation of vocabulary from both French and Latin into its Germanic base. Is it cruel to compare Cheke’s private war to, for example, the labours of the Académie française today, fighting the brave fight to keep words like ‘weekend’ and ’email’ out of the French language?

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, if we take the historical view, there’s much to commend the sentiment of this Chicago Tribune article of last week, advocating less nitpicking about grammar in emails and texts, because they’re now as immediate and as common as speech, and everyone but the most infuriating of pedants turns a blind eye to the odd slip-up there. History teaches us that languages change and there’s very little we can do about it, so why be a stickler for the rules?

Crucially, though, some people have done something about it: we do now have a language codified and standardised by Fowler, Webster, Johnson et al. Whether they aimed to alter the language or merely record it, they and others have produced a more or less stable form, which continues to be the language of official communication, if not of Gchat and texts. The article’s argument is that we might separate the two, and allow for greater leniency in casual communication while maintaining standards elsewhere.

But language—as Cheke saw—is a slippery thing, and separation of this sort won’t be sustainable for long. More importantly, what about people who communicate almost solely via text and Gchat? For them, mistakes in grammar might become the norm, and many of them will find themselves at a severe disadvantage when they come to write in more formal contexts. Because, like it or not, there will always be circumstances in which people will judge you for your use of language.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.