Technophobes and cynical columnists would tell you that our language is slowly eroding through text messaging, tweet-talk and email-speak. Before long, no one will be able to speak or spell properly, they lament.
Yet, recent studies suggest that, if anything, the opposite is true, reports Caroline Green in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of the BBC Knowledge magazine. “All these new forms of communication are actually improving our language skills.” I couldn’t agree more. As an ecologist, I have observed that language, like many community-related biological phenomena, benefits from diversity, which creates opportunities for evolution and change. It proves that we are elastic and adaptive: always a good thing, as is change.
“Surely language has always been continually evolving since…well, since it first evolved all those years ago,” Green adds.
We can communicate over long distances faster and more easily than ever before, says Green. Think of the burgeoning social networks on the internet like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter, with access via computer, iPhone, Blackberry and cell phones. Since it was launched in 2004 at Harvard, Facebook’s membership has swollen to over 250 million people in 170 countries and territories. My son texts many times in a day; he is proficient, fast and can do it one-handed easily.
David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Bangor UK says that electronically mediated communication (EMC) such as email and texting is only doing what other communicative technologies like printing, telephony and broadcasting have done in the past. “It adds to the variety of styles in languages, thereby increasing their expressive richness,” says Crystal. He contends that Texting and Twitter are perfect examples because their character constraints force the development of new styles. This economy of style marks an ongoing evolution in effective communication.
Crystal further debunks concerns by conservatives that today’s youth can’t spell or speak real English as a result of the proliferation of this means of communication. “Several studies show that texting is linguistically beneficial—it actually improves literacy scores,” contends Crystal, who goes on to say that “not surprisingly, the best texters are the best spellers.”
I have observed the trial of new styles in the context of the old like including a text abbreviation in a newspaper article or saying “LOL” in speech, something I’ve heard my son do several times. These are clearly examples of literate people playing with language.
While the actual origin of “language” (as in speech) is still not clear, postulations on its origin and evolution are several. Dean Falk, anthropologist at Florida State University, suggests that speaking evolved in humans in order to survive. He provides the scenario of adults moving around to forage for food. Babies would have to have been laid down on the ground, which would create the need for communication. The baby would cry, leading to reassuring vocalizations by the mother, creating a proto-language. Derek Bickerton at the University of Hawaii believes that language evolved through the need to recruit help to hunt and scavenge food as a team. “Recruitment was only possible if information that was not about the here and now could be transmitted. And that meant transcending one of the most serious limitations of primate communication systems: the inability to transfer information about anything except the here and now.”