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Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail
Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail

Dan Smiley

Dictionary thumpers, a word, pls Add to ...

The idea that our dependence on technology is ruining the English language is not a new one. Members of the media, linguists and grammar gurus are on both sides, pushing and pulling over the implications associated with texting, blogging and e-mailing. Many who think language is being flushed down the toilet put the blame squarely on younger generations. Is this criticism accurate or even relevant?

Let's get a sampling from both camps. A features writer for the Guardian in Britain says our language is deteriorating because "expressions are being mangled by the culture of cut and paste and the spread of unchecked writing on the Internet." A reporter from the Ottawa Citizen bemoans young people's inability to use comparative adjectives, apostrophes and possessive pronouns, asserting that, thanks to the under-45s, language is "evolving right back to the swamp."

Could these reporters know something we don't? Could younger people's lax spelling and punctuation rules in text messages and e-mails really affect their ability to spell and form coherent sentences? Are today's youth really that clueless when asked to write formally?

"In some ways, it's a reaction to change and a reluctance to accept change, but to some extent it's also a fictitious topic that doesn't have any merit," says Philipp Angermeyer, a linguistics professor at York University. Many experts feel the same way. David Crystal, author of Txting: The Gr8 Db8, has been working hard to expose texting myths. He traces the British furor over texting and language back to 2003, when an anonymous teacher posted a student's essay written in nothing but text-speak. Although media outlets couldn't track down either the student or the teacher, it didn't stop them from running the story.

Arnold Zwicky, a Stanford linguistics professor, attributes unfair criticisms to the "recency illusion" (if you notice something happening recently, you conclude the thing must have originated recently) and the "frequency illusion," (if you've noticed a phenomenon, you will identify it again and again). These illusions certainly apply to texting and blogging, considering these are relatively new forms of writing we see daily.

Text messaging became popular in Europe and parts of Asia roughly five years before North America. With this technology now widespread here, the criticisms were sure to follow. This was one of the main reasons David Crystal released his book back in 2008 - to curb the knee-jerk reaction of North American dictionary thumpers.

The language and technology debate precedes text messaging - similar reactions were seen with spell check, word processing and the typewriter. Conrad Swackhamer, a writer for the Democratic Review in 1848, said the telegraph would have a drastic effect on writing, that the technology would inevitably lead to people writing in a form that communicated as much as possible using the fewest words possible. Sound familiar?

So, considering how little research there is to back up the claim that technology is destroying language, why does this hell-in-a-handbasket opinion persist? Prof. Zwicky talks about the "adolescent illusion," where adults pay selective attention to the language and writing of adolescents, and see the mistakes they make as the source of this "trend." In fact, adults are responsible for as much as 80 to 90 per cent of text messaging, so if it's hurting the language, why should young people be held responsible?

"To some extent, it has to do with attitudes toward people," says Prof. Angermeyer. "The columnist wouldn't write this if they didn't also think there was something else wrong with the people they speak about." These types of criticisms, he explains, are considered politically acceptable complaints meant to be aimed at certain groups of people, motivated by some other dislike.

This intergenerational tension goes both ways. A 2009 Conference Board of Canada survey of more than 900 Gen X, Gen Y and baby boomer respondents revealed that each generation marked the other two with unfair stereotypes. Boomers were considered less accepting of diversity and change and uncomfortable with technology. Gen Xers were cynical and independent. Gen Yers were lazy and difficult to manage. While each generation viewed the other two negatively, most participants were alike in many ways, with similar personality types, workplace motivations and social behaviours. While we all may come from different social groups, our language dialects and writing styles are very similar, and are not about to change any time soon.

It all boils down to what is appropriate in what context. "If I write a text message, my text might be inappropriately long and full of punctuation," says Prof. Angermeyer.

"Ultimately, from a theoretical perspective, the only distinction you can really make is between native speakers [of a dialect]and non-native speakers. Every native speaker is a competent language speaker, and depending on what you are exposed to and what environments you use the language in, you acquire different skills."

The same holds true for writing. People of all ages use different conventions when blogging, texting, e-mailing and writing formally. And while the odd textism might find its way into a business memo or school assignment, those errors are not frequent enough for us to announce the beginning of the end of standard English as we know it.

Those who criticize people for the way they speak or write are essentially saying that their own way is best. What gives them the right? Before we jump to judgment, shouldn't we try walking in their shoes, or at least texting with their thumbs?

Dan Smiley is a professional writer from Toronto with a background in book publishing.

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