CS Sealey

New Zealand-based sub-editor, writer and author

The Digital Age

The digital age has seen the rise of many great technologies, including personal computers, laptops and smartphones, but it has also seen the decline of some older and rather beautiful methods of communication such as handwritten letters.

As a writer, I always keep a small notebook and multiple pens (just in case) in whichever bag I need for that day’s activity. This is so I can jot down ideas for stories, scenes, characters or articles and also to scribble down information to readily hand to someone on the fly. It’s interesting how much I continue to use paper in my daily life despite the fact I own an iPhone with a couple of really good note-taking apps. In fact, I feel quite vulnerable without my trusty notebook and collection of pens. After all, my phone can always run out of battery—and often does because I keep forgetting about it—and I’m less likely to write the wrong words on paper without the helpful autocorrect features on my phone! Not to mention how much faster it is to capitalise a letter on paper than on a phone or add in a dash or exclamation mark.

I am particularly interested in the matter of how modern technology has brought a lot of people to the keyboard and encouraged them to write and express themselves. Those who would normally resist the urge to speak their mind, due to shyness or fear, can do so online with the aid of blogging and anonymous posting. Online, they can be whoever they want to be and be relatively free of society’s cultural trappings, which is great. The flip side of this, of course, is that people can post abuse anonymously without consequences and spoil the mood for everyone else—however, that is another issue, one I don’t want to rant about right now.

The fact of the matter is that more people are writing. What they’re writing might not always be very intelligent, pretty, grammatically correct or groundbreaking, but it is being absorbed by other people from across the globe in a way that not even the print media could have offered the average Joe at its zenith.

But is this a good thing? ‘For societies as a whole or for the English language?’ you may ask. Well, they’re both very complex topics in and of themselves but I’m going to concentrate on language in this brief almost-essay.

When we look at the effects of modernism on language, many questions pop into our minds.

Is text-speak and Internet language enriching English or diluting it?

While I can’t say I’m an expert on the evolution of language, I can offer my opinion and personal observations. (Hey, if you want a detailed research paper with references and quotes left, right and centre, go to a library and read an academic journal—or is that too old school now?)

I personally detest text-speak, especially the inclusion of numbers within words and phrases, like m8, l8er and 4u. My hatred of such things heightened when I left school and heard through the grapevine that text-speak would be allowed in final school exams to encourage students to participate in essay writing. Though I can’t prove that this was more than just hearsay, I was astounded and disgusted right down to my bones. First they stop teaching the basics of the English language in high school (ages 12–18), then they allow students to actually miswrite in their exams?! I was this close to pursuing a teaching career so I could undertake a one-man crusade to wipe out such a terrible idea!

I would argue that some text-speak serves no positive purpose in the English language except to express something in a condensed form over space-limited messaging and mostly in an effort to convey coolness. After all, reading and writing later is quicker than l8er and disperses with any confusion. However, I will admit that some modern initialisms and acronyms are useful, such as brb, irl, b2b, fyi, atm and btw, but I must stress that I prefer to write things out in full most of the time. I learnt how to touch type extremely fast for a reason, after all!

In short, I believe the English language will move on its merry way with text-speak serving as little more than a rather annoying dingleberry in the grander scheme of things. We don’t need to worry about it polluting our quagmire of a language.

Are we forgetting how to use English or simply evolving it?

English is an ever-changing language. In primary school (ages 6–12), I distinctly remember being taught that the possessive of it was it’s, not its as it currently stands. When this trend shifted to what we now deem to be correct, it threw me off for about five years because I didn’t understand that things like that could change.

I sometimes refer to English as the sponge of language because it really is an amalgamation of so many languages—stealing a word here or there that better describes a phenomenon (zeitgeist), a cooking technique (julienne), a position or role (guru) or an action or sound (hubbub). There is no downside to adopting more words into a language because it serves to enrich it.

However, occasionally, I do get the feeling that some trends shift because the general population fail to understand something due to ignorance or a lack of interest to correct themselves. Spelling is a hard one because English has several forms and the spelling of slang also varies from person to person—as it begins as a spoken term or phrase. I estimate many words we consider misspelt today will be accepted alternatives in the years to come, for example; basicly, jist, wierd, recieve and firey.

Is this good or bad? It’s hard to make a call on that. English will never be a static language and the more words it accepts into its folds and the more cultures adopt and morph it, the richer it will be as a whole. However—and this is a big however—that does not mean I want to see people purposely misspelling words because they think they’re on the cusp of change evolution. Just learn to spell!

Is language evolving unnaturally fast? Will my generation be unable to understand our grandchildren?

Technology is evolving incredibly fast, yes, but I think language is changing just fast enough for one generation to stay in touch with the next. I doubt there will ever come a time when your children are speaking gobbledygook-English and you will need to keep a digi-dictionary on hand. I also believe that each following generation will be more open and accepting of new technologies, making them more willing to learn and stay modern, as they will never know a life without the Internet, smartphones or social networking.

In any case, every generation goes through a time—usually during adolescence—where they adopt a certain type of communication because of their social circles. For example, gamers use terms such as noob, camping, tea-bagging and pwned in non-gaming situations, perplexing their parents.

So looking back on my rant/essay, it might be hard to determine what my stance is. Do I like modern influences on the English language or do I want to protect it from lazy modernisms? Well, it’s a bit of both. While I understand that all languages need outside influences to change, I don’t want too many of the modern trends to be preserved.

What will happen in the future? Will HRM King George VII deliver his Christmas speech via holographic text or direct cranial podcast and will the words he speak be understood by all who listen? We will just have to wait and see!

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