Fri 16 Apr 2010
This week, an argument has been being waged in the Opinion section of the Sydney Morning Herald about the effect of the internet on language. It started with an article on Tuesday about Australian author Cate Kennedy, who fears literature is being threatened by the internet. She’s referring specifically to writers who become addicted to being online and therefore cannot put as much effort into their art.
On the Wednesday, the following letter appeared.
I agree with Cate Kennedy’s criticism of the effect of the internet on literature, but it spreads further than that, with technology affecting the entire English language (“A click too far: the internet’s toxic effect on literature”, April 13). The internet and its ease of communication has shaped English into a pseudo-speech characterised by grammatical errors and inaccuracies in syntax, punctuation and commonsense. Where is the line drawn between beneficial advancement and irreversible side effects? Will our desire for progress come at the sake of our language?
Anna Pavlakis Greenwich
I read this and thought ‘enough is enough’, and replied with this letter which appeared the following day:
Loose language is not the end of civilisation1
Every so often a letter appears decrying the demise of English due either to some generation younger than that of the letter writer, or to technology such as mobile phones and the internet.
When these letters appear, I read them aloud to my colleagues, always to their amusement. But on reading Anna Pavlakis’s letter (April 14), I decided it was about time we put an end to this nonsense.
English is not becoming a “pseudo-speech”. Technology is not causing its demise. Young people who cannot accurately place an apostrophe, or who think “should’ve” is a contraction of “should of”, will not bring about the inevitable destruction of Anglophone civilisation.
The easy way to respond to these ludicrous claims is to cite the continual evolution of living languages. Such change is neither good nor bad; it just is.
Second, most people have always had difficulty with English – ask any high school English teacher. Such difficulties were not created by technology, they are merely more visible.
For most English speakers this doesn’t matter. Advanced skills in such a horrible language as English are necessary only for a small percentage of people, and only then because we arbitrarily attach prestige to a standard form of the English language that retains a plethora of irregularities and archaic forms and is therefore very difficult to master.
With this in mind, the internet is actually the great democratiser, allowing many more people than ever before to gain access to privilege by removing the arbitrary barrier of English linguistic mastery.
Aidan Wilson Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney
And this morning, I opened up to the letters page to find no less than three responses to my letter.
Nothing can come of nothing2
I can just see my year 9 English class when I tell them Aidan Wilson thinks most of us don’t need advanced English skills (Letters, April 15). Even better when I mention hopefully that the internet makes for a more democratic society. “Fantastic,” they will say and toss away their quaintly “archaic” novels that I make them read, to feast instead on the dross online.
Yes, language is not static and can accommodate the influence of technology, but “lol” and (: will not cut it when my students need solutions to problems requiring complex and precise language skills. By having no standards we are reduced to the lowest common denominator. How depressing. What’s wrong with trying to master complex things? Are we becoming dumber? Maybe it is the end of civilisation as we know it.
Cathy Hooke Ashfield
As a former English teacher I take umbrage at Aidan Wilson’s diatribe. Has Mr Wilson ever read Chaucer or Shakespeare? The wealth of vocabulary, beauty and “infinite variety” of the English language are evident in the magnificence of our literary tradition, which is sadly being lost because of the widespread use and abuse of modern technologies.
For shame! Mr Wilson is promulgating superficial and base ideas about the English language.
Michele Linkiewicz Caringbah
One must admire the confidence of the linguisticians3 of Sydney University that they can “put an end to this nonsense” (moral panic about civilisation being destroyed by slovenly English expression) by anything so simple as a letter to the Herald. Nevertheless their reassurance is convincing. I don’t suppose they would accept my observations as scientific evidence, but, over 40 years as a seconary [sic] school teacher, I have noticed that pupils’ written work was always superior to their parents’ writing, as evidenced by the standard of absence notes. Indeed, excellent English in an absence note was a pretty good indication of a forgery.
Raymond McDonald Stanmore
Perhaps Raymond McDonald is right; I am probably jousting with windmills by writing a letter, but you can’t blame me for having a go!
- The titles of the letters, by the way, are the creation of the letters page editors, and not the letter writers.
- I’m not even sure what this is meant to mean!
- Linguisticians. Nice.