Net language, the end of literacy?

RECENTLY, I received a letter by e-mail, the text of which I faithfully reproduce below, omitting only the names:


s 'pdatd me c news in tvm 'n tel abt u evry time we spiks or mails.

so sir wassup... howz life there.. 'm in dili.. may b s wud 've told abt me 2 u .. 'ni way nothin spl z hapnin..'ll mail u in d tail later..!

This rather puzzling communication required a good half hour of

imaginative reconstruction before it could be comprehended. My correspondent, who was in 'dili', which I took to be a reference to the capital of our country, was trying to tell me that he had nothing to tell me and that he would tell me the same thing in greater detail on a future occasion. To impart this message, he had used around fifty words spelt and arranged in a manner which it took me half an hour to decipher.

I showed this missive to a couple of friends and the immediate reaction each time was the outraged question: "Who the devil taught this guy English? ( As I sit here writing, I can hear many of you asking the same question in the same outraged tone of voice. Therefore let me make a confession at the outset: my dear friends, for three years, I taught him English.)

The letter also had an interesting post scriptum :

``Dear sir my langge z 2 bad of bein constantly on net.. so used 2 it that the noml way of riting z no mo comftble so sir plz dont feel bad n no coments plzzzzzzzzzz...!

So there you are. The writer was conscious of the fact that there was something about his style, which was likely to elicit adverse comment, and he was applying for an anticipatory bail of sorts. He was placing the responsibility for the strangeness of his style squarely on the Internet.

Don't blame me, he was saying in effect, it is not my fault, blame the net. And why should we blame the net? Because, he would say, it is considered a matter of poor taste to `write' fair' on the net. When I was first introduced to the mixed joys of the worldwide web a few years ago, a learned colleague, who was already `net savvy' had cautioned me about just this. !'Don't ever use the upper case letters in an e-mail; don't use punctuation. Use numerals for words wherever appropriate: 2 for to and 4 for `for'. For example (2 4 2 & 4 4 4) This friend's writing style was, incidentally, exceptionally abstruse even before the English language had come under assault from the web. And by scrupulously following the conventions he had listed for me in his own writing, he made it even more so.

In the case of my student, hours of writing in a manner suitable for net communication had made him incapable of writing in any other way. Or that is what he said.

Conventional rules of language, we are told, were designed in

Pre-internet days and they are no longer adequate for our purposes today.

Therefore a new kind of language, a `new-write' of sorts, is in the process of being created. And if it doesn't readily make sense to begin with, never mind. It will, eventually. Every reform, like every new shoe, pinches when it is new and the traditionalists' rebel against it.

But all such reforms become accepted institutions, old and comfortable shoes, with the passage of a few years. And in any case, we might add, since the communicator has nothing to tell you any way, why kick up a fuss?

Why indeed? The short answer to this question is that speech or

Writing is the expression of thought, and garbled speech or writing usually indicates a confused mind.

On the other hand, a properly and meticulously formed sentence is evidence of an orderly mind. The mind appears to become more refined when it is subjected to the stress of careful selection, clever compression and cogent expression. Indeed, such an act of expression itself may serve to clarify an idea, perhaps even to the person who expresses it.

The sloppiness, the departure from the discipline of accurate and succinct expression which we encounter everywhere today, and not only on the net, represent merely the tip of the iceberg.

They are the symptoms of a deeper malady, an underlying sloppiness of the mind, which is on the increase everywhere. And this, it seems to me, is one of the pressing misfortunes of our times. And imagine a whole generation of net-browsers writing in the manner shown above. What will be the long-term result? What will happen to books, to culture, to the life of the mind? Is it not likely that this style will penetrate every area of written or oral communication? Will it not stifle the elegance and charm and sanity, which our past has fostered in the face of the perpetual onslaught of the real world? Will it not strangle the last stylist with the entrails of the last grammarian?

And won't that be a pity? Not everyone however feels that way. David Crystal, the distinguished Welsh scholar whose books have been prescribed texts on linguistics all over the world, says in his recent book Language and the Internet that, on the contrary, the new, informal, sometimes even bizarre discourse of the Internet does not threaten or replace existing varieties of

English but instead enriches them, extending our range of expression and our communication options.

Consider the letter quoted at the beginning of this article. At first glance, the text appears to be a prime example of linguistic irresponsibility: the absence of capital letters, the whimsical and unpredictable use of punctuation, the `customised' spelling, the liberties taken with the conventional rules of grammar all cry out to be avenged. It sounds the death knell of grammar. Gone are the past participles and passive voice which one learned so diligently.

Faced with such writing, it is common for good men to tremble and grow pale and then to announce the impending demise of the English language. But for Crystal, these are not signs of impending doom. He sees them as evidence of human ingenuity, an amazing creativity that is attempting to adapt the old language to the requirements of a new medium, which he calls `Computer mediated communication'. This `new-write' is the offspring of the `chat-room' where spontaneity rules, and grammatical compunctions must make way before the urgent need for instant response.

The `reforms', which curdle our blood and raise our pressure are therefore not premeditated offences against good sense but merely sparks of red-hot inspiration emanating from fingertips working the keyboard at great speed. So those who indulge in this `new-write' are not betrayers of the received language after all. Far from it. They are the vanguard of progress and their use of language in ways in which it has not been used in the past is a glorious testimony to the infinite adaptability of our kind. They are the true upholders of the evolution of language, for good or for bad. They of course believe it is for the good.

Well, may be. What would we ever have done if we didn't have scholars to whitewash our follies even if they cannot rescue us from them?

There can be little doubt that `computer mediated communication' is one of the greatest gifts bestowed on mankind by the last century. And Crystal is probably right when he perceives in its users hints of creativity and ingenuity that are native to human beings. But the haphazard way in which language is used by an increasing number of net browsers will destroy literacy, erode the charm of articulation, and ultimately threaten that clarity of mind, which is necessary for orderliness and sanity. tttt, the new-rite smtoe & imo t'll kil litracy as we no it. u c wat i min?--- to tell the truth; smtoe -- sets my teeth on edge ; imo -- in my opinion; ucwatimin -- you see what I mean. Just a few examples from a long list of them collected by David Crystal.

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