January isn’t quite over yet and we’ve already seen the first contender for silly academic suggestion of the year, based as ever on ‘research’, strut into the ring and start flexing its muscles.
It takes the shape of a claim made by researchers at Coventry University that sending text messages helps children to improve their spelling because the process involved requires the same levels of ‘phonological awareness’ needed to choose the correct spelling for words in more conventional English.
All those fusty types who prefer archaic language such as ‘you are’ or even the chummy ‘you’re’ to the ugly UR (which is confusing since it could also mean ‘your ) were wrong. Text messaging and all its associated evils aren’t going to ruin the English language and send us back to the dark ages.
We know this to be true because Clare Wood, a reader in developmental psychology at Coventry University told the world this week, via the BBC, ‘If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it.’ Ms Wood is free to hold whatever opinion she likes, but I don’t plan to start feeling relieved about this issue any time soon.
Lets get one thing clear from the start, I recognise that language and technology change and that that is mostly to the good, I am, after all, writing this on a computer instead of a manual typewriter or scratching away at a bit of parchment with a quill pen. It doesn’t follow that all change is good and the changes text speak is bringing about in the English language are not good at all.
For start the whole contention that text speak requires that same skills as using conventional English is based on the whiskery old premise that in order to break the rules of English you first have to understand them. Fair enough so far as it goes, if where you start your relationship with language is in the cosy confines of a middle class, in the best sense of the term, home surrounded by books and blessed with supportive parents. You will have taken in with your mother’s milk the idea that being creative with the rules of language or anything else is ok so long as it isn’t taken too far.
Things don’t look anything like so rosy if you had the bad luck to be born into a home where books are as rare as unicorns and your parents are usually too busy, maybe they’re texting, to care what you’re doing most of the time. It is the children from backgrounds like this who most need to know that good clear English matters because they will always have to fight hardest to get their voice heard. Peppering application forms or the innumerable letters to one bureaucrat or another that take up so much of modern life with text speak, as so many do with out even knowing what they’ve done, means they are forever pushed to the back of the queue.
There is also the small matter of the way the fashion sanctioned illiteracy of text speak has seeped into everyday language. Not too long ago I came across a leaflet printed by my local council asking for young people to come forward to be youth councillors, splendid, you might think, just what we need more young people taking an active part in civic life. That’s what I thought, or would have done if the fact that in a desperate attempt to be ‘down with the kids’ the designers of the leaflet had deemed it necessary to ask for ‘uth’ councillors hadn’t made me grind my teeth down to the gums. How patronising for the young people they were seeking to recruit and how galling for their English teachers.
The English language has given the world some remarkable gifts from the plays of Shakespeare and the bleakly suburban poetry of Phillip Larkin, to the wisecracking dialogue of Raymond Chandler and the inspired lunacy of the Goon Show, to claim that text speak is anything other than an ugly, if functional, shadow compared to the real thing is enough to provoke the answer; don’t make me lol.