Whateverist nomads thinking in snippets

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Certain people apparently find it fascinating to read speculations about the possibility that cellphones and texting and wireless devices might be completely altering our language, and through that (in accordance with the usual vulgar Whorfianism) our thought. They will enjoy the special report on mobility in The Economist, and particularly the article entitled Homo mobilis. Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University, detects worrying trends that relate to what the culture of cellphones, pagers, laptops, and wireless has done to the minds of the young:

Society's attitude towards language has changed, she thinks. For about 250 years, the consensus in Western societies has been that grammar, syntax and spelling matter, and that rules have to be observed. That consensus now appears to be at risk.

The consensus that supports syntax itself is at risk! People who like to read this sort of alarmist stuff will find that here they have exactly the sort of alarmist stuff they like to read. But me? I'm a skeptic. I think it's a load of nonsense.

The very examples cited seem to me to underline the fatuous character of the thesis being advanced:

In all electronic media, especially when typed on the small screens of mobile handsets, absolutely anything, linguistically speaking, seems to go. Apostrophes that once distinguished between "its" and "it's" seem quaint and arbitrary. Entire words and sentences now compose themselves with the ever-present "autofill" and spell-check features, which adolescents increasingly regard as a virtual Samuel Johnson or Konrad Duden.

So the apostrophe — that key orthographic distinguisher that protects Western civilization from confusion between the genitive case of the 3rd person singular neuter pronoun and the result of attaching the clitic form of the 3rd person singular present tense form of the copula to that pronoun — is being elided in some people's casual communications on small keypad-driven devices. Well; we've never encountered carelessness with apostrophes before, have we? Behold, a new language; the birth of a new species!

I'm not buying this cellphones-will-change-our-language hogwash. The only examples ever cited involve tiny details of spelling. The Economist writer says: "That major linguistic change is afoot is clear to anybody who has been around young people almost anywhere in the world" — and transitions from there to an example cited by Richard Ling, a sociologist in Norway, where there was a brief fad for typing z instead of s when texting. Come on! Major linguistic change? (And the fad was stopped cold when a rap group mocked it in a song.)

Somehow Naomi Baron extracts from her observations a message that wireless nomadism is destroying language by acting on our very capacity to care:

Spelling is in decline today, she thinks, not because of the rich diversity of dialects, as in Chaucer's day, but because the dominant mindset of nomadic culture is that language does not matter. We are entering, as she puts is, an age of "linguistic whateverism". One reason is that people today are writing vastly larger amounts of text than ever before, and "the more we write online, the worse writers we become."

You've noticed that, haven't you? The way we senior writers at Language Log Plaza are being rapidly pushed into illiteracy by the fact that we spend time writing online for you? The recycling bins on our workstations are full of apostrophes by the end of the day.

But it's more than just linguistic whateverism, she thinks; it's actually the ability to attend to detail that is being destroyed. The article goes on (still paraphrasing Naomi Baron):

In the eras of quills, pens or even manual typewriters it was hard to write a lot, so people took time and care in clarifying their thoughts. Many nomads today are convinced that they don't have the time to think and care, so they concentrate on speed alone.

Now, I remember manual typewriters; I believe I once saw one. Trust me, they did not enforce time and care in clarifying thought. They encouraged Wite-Out, Tipp-Ex, and avoidance of revision, that's what they encouraged. I believe it is fairly well known that Jacqueline Suzanne, the undistinguished novelist and celebrity who wrote Valley of the Dolls in the 1960s, turned her book manuscripts in ALL TYPED IN CAPITAL LETTERS WITH NO PUNCTUATION LIKE THIS. The books were retyped during the editing process after they reached the publishing house. Time, care, and clarification were not front and center.

But things are worse yet: intellectual lassitude and inability to complete a term paper are being caused by these communication devices in the backpacks of the young:

Because language is the primary vehicle for thought, this has consequences. Already, Ms Baron detects a new and widespread intellectual torpor among her students. Young Americans used to cut corners before an exam on "Hamlet" by reading the CliffsNotes. Teachers hated them, but they were pedagogic wonders compared with today's method of Googling the passage in question, then using the computer's "find" function to get to the exact snippet. Ms Baron thinks that these days her students even think in snippets, which is to say incoherently. And that is how they write essays. Having internalised the new whateverism, they launch in and stumble through, with nary a thought for what they actually want to say.

Already there is torpor! We must do something.

Seriously, yes, there is torpor. I have to confess that part of my readiness to give up teaching in California and move to the University of Edinburgh came from a growing sense that a significant and growing proportion of the undergraduate students I was trying to teach there were neither intellectually equipped for a university-level education nor attuned to its goals. There was, indeed, a blanket whateverism that I found repellent, and counter to the whole point of having a university. I spent much time fighting transparent, brainless plagiarism, often Internet-assisted. But this wasn't caused by the students' cellphones and laptops or the wireless Internet in the student coffee shops.

For California also had some brilliant students, both undergraduate and graduate; young people full of intellectual drive and curiosity and originality. And they had cellphones and laptops too. They used them as power tools to extend the mind. As for "the computer's ‘find’ function", as the somewhat naive Economist prose has it (the text-search function isn't built into the computer like the video card, it's a software feature): my best students used regular-expression searching with skill and cunning to ferret out examples and track down details.

I used to teach a course on the linguistic aspects of the Unix C-shell command language and the use of Unix utilities. The students most afflicted with torpor were interested in getting drunk and in cheating, but not in quintupling their productivity. You can't use power tools to quintuple your productivity if there's nothing you want to do. But the best students used the technology to become more alert to the possibilities and pleasures of intellectual life than previous generations could even dream of. Texting will not rot their brains.

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