So, the kids these days, with their loud music and crazy hair and baggy pants and all that. I hear they also have this thing called “texting” and that it has popularized all sorts of non-standard grammatical expressions and abbreviations like LOL and BRB and junk like that. In 2007, John Humphrys got his monocle in a twist over text-speak, opining that,
[The texters] are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbors eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation, savaging our sentences, raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.
OMGWTF! Rape analogies! In an article about grammar. That seems entirely measured and reasonable. In 2002, John Sutherland injected overt sexism and ableism to his spittle-flecked hissy fit over texting, blaming the rise of texting on “homebound women…currently the groundbreaking texters in the laggard U.S.” and complaining that texting “masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.” It’s like John Sutherland can’t stand the fact that dyslexic and/or illiterate people might be walking past him on the sidewalk unmarked, that he will never be able to trip them on the sidewalk and take their lunch money and shame them for daring to be born with a congenital learning difference (though for sweet crying Baby Jesus’s sake, John Sutherland, dyslexic people can learn how to write, they just learn differently, you jackhole) or a poverty so grinding and hideous that they were unable to obtain literacy education.
Humphrys and Sutherland position themselves as the keepers of the old ways, the guardians of the Mother Tongue, who are watching, shaking their heads and tsk-tsking, as the English speaking world self-immolates. Yet underlying all of this hand-wringing about the lack of subtlety and complexity of text speak is an open, seething animosity toward People Who Communicate Differently. Even where Humphrys acknowledges that fact that, yeah, language evolves, he claims that “texting and netspeak are effectively different languages.” Wow.
Let’s take a little walk through linguistic history, shall we? One deleted commenter who sort of aggressively missed the point of this post was kind enough to remind me that split infinitives aren’t necessarily incorrect usage and also that I am terrible. A very brief look at Wikipedia will show you that the split infinitive as a long, contentious history. Basically, at some point in the mid-nineteenth century, style and grammar experts started noticing that split infinitives were becoming more common, and thus the Culture War of the Split Infinitive began. On the one side, you had the folks who thought the split infinitive was an abomination, while others thought it was perfectly fine. Henry Alford is regarded as the standard-bearer of the anti-split infinitive camp. In A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, Alford says this:
A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives us as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.
I find it interesting that Alford makes his plea on the basis of common usage, or what he thought would sound most natural to the people of his time. That’s what a lot of grammar debates come down to: whatever sounds right. The problem is that the naturalness of the split infinitive (and yes, almost no one except douchiest of Grammar Douches objects to these any more) or any other disputed construction is dependent on context. This is because fluency is inevitably contextual. It is possible to be fluent in your native language in some contexts but not in others.
Autobiographical digression: I grew up in the Southwest, which means that I grew up hearing “ya’ll” used unironically in conversation. It’s a term that feels natural and available to me, so while I’m self-conscious about using it in all contexts, I do occasionally order it off the menu. Simply saying “you” or “you all” to indicate the second person plural does not feel quite right, but I am intensely aware of the fact that to some, “ya’ll” speaks volumes about a person’s background and education, even political leanings. At worst, it’s a sign of backwardness and unsophistication. At best it’s quaint and adorable. My mother always admonished my Dad for using it, along with “ain’t,” especially around his patients.
Back to the Culture War of the Split Infinitive, which was part of an effort to establish some usages and some linguistic communities as more legitimate than others, an effort to defend an elite version of English in the wake of rapid social change. As European nations began to occupy spaces across the world, the world itself became smaller. European languages were becoming world languages, and English was being reshaped by contact with other cultures in dramatic and unexpected ways. Across the pond, the U.S. population was growing exponentially due to unprecedented levels of immigration. Is this sounding at all familiar?
My point is that usage wars often reflect much deeper societal anxieties, anxieties that have much to do with the erosion of cultural authorities and fear of inter-ethnic contamination. Obviously, texting anxiety does reflect the fact that many people feel alienated and frustrated by rapid changes in technology. I, myself, was pretty slow to adopt texting, mostly because I was terrible at it. It took me so long to hammer out a message on the standard number pad phone that I was usually just inclined to say “Eff it” and fire off an email or leave a voice message. It took smartphones to finally get me to text with any regularity, and even then I tend to do so in complete sentences with punctuation and everything. But that’s me. However, there is something about the red-eyed, vein-popping anger over the notion that texting is Ruining Everything that makes me think that this is about something more.
Texting and chatspeak are the innovations of a younger, more pluralistic generation, but it has also appeared at a historical moment in which paranoia about linguistic degradation encompasses a deep anxiety about “those damn foreigners” and their refusal to learn English in a way that satisfies us and their demanding tax payer dollars for ESL education in public schools. The immigrant backlash has been escalating in both the U.S. and Europe as cultural intermixing between the West the nations the West has helped destabilize to the point that immigration has become necessary. Beneath all of the classist and ablist language is also the implication that People Who Communicate Differently are inherently less intelligent and/or less educated than the guardians of “correct usage.” Accommodating other linguistic groups–which require us to work harder to understand and to be understood–stirs deeply felt but little acknowledged animosity toward the Other.
And here’s the thing, recent research has shown that texting has not impaired the literacy of our schoolchildren. The thing about fluency having many contexts is that eventually we do learn what kinds of speech are appropriate in particular situations. As the Newsweek article linked above suggests:
[This] doesn’t let the teenager who LOLs in a term paper off the hook–but that’s not so much a question of language ability as judgment. It, too,should go the way of all slang ever inappropriately used in a classroom–rebuked with a red pen, not seized upon as a symptom of generational decline. Even if electronic communication engenders its own kind of carelessness, it’s no worse than the carelessness of academic jargon or journalistic shorthand. It certainly doesn’t engender stupidity.
Children of the digital generation don’t have a problem with language (research suggests that they are actually more sophisticated in this area) so much as they have a problem with etiquette and understanding what works in any given context. But that has always been true of children and teenagers. The truth is that we all could probably do with a bit more civility, and that includes not being a total human fail when talking about technologies you find annoying.