Email and SMS raise questions and fears regarding the effect of such advances on the nature and quality of human expression
Mindlessness — like yawning — could be contagious. Hence, a British secondary-school teacher’s shock and alarm, a few days back, at receiving an entire essay written out in SMS shorthand. There was no cheekiness at all in the 13-year-old who handed in this piece, just a candid admission that she found text messaging “easier than standard English”. (It seems unlikely though that she used the phrase, “standard English”.) This is not a stray case. British examination boards have been expressing concern of late at the frequent use of SMS-speak in the English papers. SMS has caught on all over the world extraordinarily fast. In Britain alone, a billion messages are sent every month, each having to be less than 160 characters. This has brought with it an epidemic of abbreviation — at least among those who can afford computers and cell-phones in the Anglophone world. With email and chatting on the internet, and now with SMS, communication has become wonderfully easy and quick for some. But this raises the question of how such advances affect the nature and quality of human expression, and more specifically, what they might be doing to the English language.
For the generation growing up with such gadgetry, this rule of brevity will bring about new attitudes to, and standards of, spelling, grammar, style and tone. With email and SMS getting cheaper and more widespread in both the ordinary and the professional spheres of life, the boundaries between everyday and formal English are getting blurred. This is a question not only of language, but also of manners, or of style. And both concerns have important bearings on education as a civilizing process that must also prepare an individual for the changing world in which he will go on to speak, write and work. There are decisions which language-teachers, grammarians and dictionary-makers will have to make sooner or later regarding how to standardize the use of something as dynamic and multifarious as the English language.
But email and SMS are not technologies which exist in a social and cultural vacuum. The disintegration of English endemic to these forms of communication is part of a larger change in the modern world’s attitude to the norms and felicities of the language. This is reflected not only in the state of English in primary, secondary or university education, but also in the clichés and coinages of the media and advertising, in the deadening effect of academic jargon, in all the various ways in which the language could be severed from the effort of thought or the graces of expression.
Email and SMS have revolutionized human relationships, bringing quickness and immediacy to distance and anonymity, extending the range of their possibilities. And there is nothing inherently corrupting in these technologies. If a computer could be used to write a novel, there is no reason why it cannot be used to write a long letter in correct English. The properly educated human brain will always remain capable of performing very different orders of linguistic activity — from “texting” a message to composing a sonnet. The mindlessness lies entirely in what the users are compelled to make of these new tools.