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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Praxis of Evil - SMS, telegrams & linguistic evolution

Language is under threat from SMS, Twitter and other social media which require users to abbreviate words ... or so we are told. Yet English today is almost unrecognisable to what it was 1,000 years ago ... and the apocalyptic SMS wasn't responsible for that. Given the linguistic evolution of English, who are we to whinge if some enterprising pundit of modern technology uses common sense in spelling a text, Twitter or Facebook update? 

SMS and social media have certainly introduced their own sub-culture language, even hijacking numbers in their quest to subvert the laws of linguistics. The number '8' is certainly a prime offender, being used to overthrow the suffix '-ate'. Some common social media abbreviations include:

- 'r' for are
- 'L8R' for later
- '2moro' for tomorrow

And then there are the initialisms:

- 'ROTFLMAO' for 'rolling on the floor laughing my ass off'
- 'LOL' for 'laugh out loud'
- 'TTL' for 'talk to you later'
- 'BBL' for 'be back later'

Is language truly under threat though? Yes and no.

'No' ... no, it is not under threat from social media. No more so at least, than it was threatened by telegrams. Remember them? Telegrams were a fore-runner of SMS and far more costly. Telegrams were usually charged by the word, so senders would leave words such as 'a' and 'the' and abbreviate phrases to save money.  Admittedly, people didn't send telegrams as often as people send SMSs today.

But 'Yes', the english language as we know it is is under threat. Not from social media, but quite simply for linguistic evolution. The english that we speak today has borrowed heavily from numerous languages, including latin, greek, french and arabic, amongst others. It has also been influenced by people who couldn't spell or who thought the previous spelling conventions (if they ever existed) required a good tune-up.

Does it really matter if English changes? Or should I say, 'if it continues to change'?

The below bible verse (John 3:16) is copied from various versions of the bible and shows the evolution of the language since the 14th century. Thank God, that English has evolved:
I suspect that some people back in the days of yore, would have complained about the changing face of their language too. Particularly, as foreign words were introduced which tended to happen when conquering, or being conquered by, foreign forces. When compiling the Oxford English Dictionary, words of foreign origin were originally left out (particularly those of the enemy French), however, it became obvious that many had come into common usage, so the decision was made to include some of the more accepted foreign words.

Although English has improved throughout the centuries, it still has so many quirks in spelling, sounds and grammatical rules as to make it a difficult language to learn - particularly if learning it as a second language. There are so many changes that could be made to the language to make it easier. For instance, would it kill us if the following changes were accepted as correct:

  • 'f' instead of 'gh
  • 'f ' instead of 'ph'
  • 'k' instead of 'ch'
  • 'ch' has a couple of personalities as a 'k' and a 'sh', for instance, 'school', 'machine
  • 'z' instead of a hard sounding 's'
  • for that matter, 's' having a consistent sound, instead of doubling as an 's' and a 'z', e.g. 'terse' and 'tease'
  • why does 'c' masquerade as both a 'k' and an 's', e.g. 'cool', 'lettuce' (why not spell them, 'kool', 'letus'). I propose that the letter 'c' is redundant and should be dismissed from the alphabet!
  • on the subject of redundancy, what is with the letter 'q'? It can't go anywhere without a 'u', so why not ditch it and use the versatile letter 'k'?
  • why do we use double letters when single ones will do nicely?

Back in the day, most silent letters were pronounced. These days, silent letters are a nightmare. In fact, 'nightmare' is a nightmare. It has a 'gh' in it, which is usually pronounced 'f', yet is silent. 'Mare' rhymes with 'air', but is spelt with an 'are'. By itself, 'are' is pronounced 'ar' not 'air'. So who are we to whinge if some enterprising pundit of modern technology decides to use some common sense in spelling when sending a text or facebook update?

In some words, there are different letters which are pronounced the same! Why? What is their purpose other than to confuse? Why isn't 'confuse' spelt 'confuze', or 'confyuz', or 'konfyuz'? What about words that are spelt differently, sound the same and have contradictory meanings? For example, 'raise' and 'raze': 'raise' means to elevate, erect or increase, while 'raze' means to tear down, demolish or destroy. It's easy to see the difference between homonyms while reading, but try seeing the difference while speaking without the letters psychedelically appearing before your eyes like a grammatical acid trip.

Then there are some words which have at least two contradictory meanings. For example, dust can mean to remove dust from or to cover in dust, cleave means to tear apart or join together.

I could go on and on about duplication and contradictions in the English language with letters, words and grammar.

Now, I'm not advocating the wholesale, over-night decimation of the alphabet and immediate reconstruction of the rules of grammar. I am saying that the English language has a lot of wriggle room for improvement, some of which will come to fruition along its evolutionary path.

Feel threatened by SMS? Like the telegram, SMS is not going to redefine the English language, it is merely a blip on the grammatical radar. However, the English language is evolving, as it has always done. The language in 100 years will be as strange to us as the language of 100 years ago is. In 500 years, our language of today will be as antiquated as the language of Shakespeare and King James. It will be comprehensible for the most part, but will have phrases, words and terminologies that we just won't have a clue about.

Rather than being precious about our language changing, rather than demonising elements of its usage, we should study it, master it and accept that change is natural.


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