Look at a timeline of every new cultural development and you’ll see roughly the same sentiment expressed time and again: Photography will kill painting. Television will kill radio. Movies will kill the book. And now, it’s texting that is ruining the English language.
Is there any validity to this theory? Well, you’ve certainly heard somebody express “L-O-L!” in real life in response to a joke, so it’s undeniable that texting is having some effect on the English language, but is it ruining it? More specifically, is the craft of composition lost on a generation of young people who write each other messages of a dozen characters at a time? Is poetry a dead art to an era that doesn’t bother with capitalization or punctuation in the vast majority of their writing? We can narrow this down to one basic question:
In programming, we refer to the code as a “language.” C++ is a programming language, and a coder who can use it to program an operating system or a video game is said to be “fluent” in C++. This programmer may write an eloquent article for a tech magazine like Wired because they understand that the English language and C++ are two different things used for two different purposes.
Another example would be a court stenographer. A courtroom stenographer doesn’t take everyone’s statement down in English, because that would take far too long. Stenographers use a specific type of shorthand. “Admr.,” for instance, is short for “administrator.” “Admonish” might be shortened to “mosh.” When reading what they’ve written back for the court to hear, a stenographer speaks the entire word, they do not speak the same way they type.
In short, it is theoretically possible that teens use texting as a sort of shorthand, a kind of “programming language” used to interact with others who understand the language. If we can establish that texting is not a perversion of the English language, but an offshoot, a secondary language that is rooted in English, but that the two are ultimately independent from one another, then we have to admit that some of our fears about the future of the English language may be misplaced.
Many have argued that teens know the difference between “netspeak” and plain English, and there are plenty of teens who are as capable of talking with their fingers as they are of speaking eloquently in front of a crowd, or writing a persuasive blog post. That said, for every teen who can write at a college level in plain English, there’s a report of one turning in a thesis written with smiley faces, “LOL’s” and letters like “C” and “I” in place of words like “see” and “eye.”
In other words, the question “Is texting ruining the English language?” doesn’t have a single answer. There are teens and young adults with no interest in learning how to type, how to compose an article, blog post or letter that puts their ideas into a thoughtful, organized format. On the other hand, there are those youngsters who grew up reading every last word of the Harry Potter books, who took advanced creative writing courses in high school, who have maintained a blog since before they were teens and who understand that texting, typing and talking are three different things.
The bottom line may simply be that no generation of young Americans can be wholly regarded as one thing or the other. We regard teens of the 1960’s as having been a bunch of free-spirited counter-culture warriors. In reality, that was just the segment that was easiest to sell on music and fashion. Yuppies had to come from somewhere, so clearly not every Baby Boomer was interested in living out of their van while traveling up and down the West Coast.
The iconic young person of the day here in the 2010’s may be an entitled, Mountain Dew-chugging hipster that thinks it’s okay to write “C U L8R” in a college thesis, but it would be unfair to assume that everyone between the ages of twelve and twenty two shares that disdain for the English language. We can’t say that texting isn’t having an effect, as you can find “LOL” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, now. But, as with all aspects of culture, there will always be those that could care less, and there will always be those that keep the fire alive
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