Devolution Shmevolution

Sometimes, in our clamour to embrace or to rage against new technology, we forget that certain problems aren’t always as new as they might seem. Those worried about the devolution of language in our digital era would do well to reflect on some history.

It seems to me that everywhere I look at the moment, I’m reading dire warnings about the devolution of language and culture as a result of new media. I find it fascinating to read that this particular problem came up in a very similar way with the advent of the telegraph. As James Gleick explains, telegraph customers soon realised that the cheapest way to communicate in this new medium involved brevity which, naturally, involved taking some shortcuts with the language.

Short messages saved money — that was simple. So powerful was that impulse that English prose style soon seemed to be feeling the effects. Telegraphic and telegraphese described the new way of writing. Flowers of rhetoric cost too much, and some regretted it.

Vail proposed using abbreviated versions of common phrases. Instead of “Give my love to,” he suggested sending “gmlt.”

— James Gleick — The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

Sound familiar?

We are often so dazzled by new media (we even call it that: new media) that we assume that the challenges it involves must be ours alone. It’s all to easy to forget that some problems aren’t as unique to our time as we like to think.

Language seems to have survived telegraphese just fine. It’s another example of what happens when we impose limits on ourselves: we get creative. You need quite a bit of creativity to be able to work with the contractions, metaphors and shortcuts inherent in so-called text speak (or in telegraphese for that matter). You actually need to have at least an intuitive grasp of the rules of grammar to be able to bend them that effectively.

It’s important to remember that creativity can’t hurt language. Language is flexible, and manages to conform to whatever medium it travels in, while retaining an enormous backwards compatibility — text-speak and Shakespeare co-exist quite happily. This flexibility doesn’t devolutionise it. The only thing that can do that is not communicating at all.

Update: John McWhorter on Language and Texting