Are texting and tweeting, online chatting and emailing destroying people’s ability to write good English? Or is resistance to change in the language coming from a few pedants who still want to see a double ‘m’ and an ‘e’ on the end of ‘computer programme’?
This week I’ve been at the excellent Newington College Literature Festival, leading writing workshops for Year 5 students and telling my stories to younger children.
A lively evening panel discussion examined “Language in the Digital Age” and raised the questions above.
Miriam Cosic, literary editor of The Australian, fondly remembered growing up in a family in which book-reading was de rigeur at breakfast and lunch, but banned at dinner so that stimulating conversation, mostly about politics, could begin. She bemoaned the loss of a nuanced word like ‘disinterested’, fast coming to mean ‘bored’.
Associate professor of English and Literacy Education Alyson Simpson stressed how she worked hard to instil in her students a love of language, particularly through poetry.
More upbeat was Judith Whelan, Saturday editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, who reminded us that although she uses Twitter and news apps to get a quick morning update on the stories of the day, like many others she follows this up by reading longer hard copy of reports that interest her.
The average time spent by those who visit the SMH website is 40 minutes a month, she told us. The average time spent reading the print version of the Saturday Herald is 60 minutes. I was pleased to hear it’s a respectable 52 minutes for readers of the Sun-Herald, who sometimes publish my travel writing on Sundays.
Award-winning author Archie Fusillo pointed out the fluidity of language. ‘Take a word like ‘friend’. How can anyone have 5000 ‘friends’ on FaceBook, and how can they ‘unfriend’ someone they’ve never met?’ He feared for languages which have little presence in cyberspace. As English becomes the world language of business, pop culture and social media, what hope is there for a language like Irish or an Italian dialect spoken only in a few villages?
Yet Archie and other professional writers at the festival generally saw little problem, and even exciting potential, in the uptake of the new media and social networking. Language has always been a work in progress. We have all had to learn that the language required for an official job application is different from a casual letter to a friend. When we sent telegrams priced by the word COMMA we learned to be concise STOP
I know I write differently – certainly faster, perhaps more carelessly – for this blog than when I am writing something that will have to face an editor, publisher or producer and fight for survival in a competitive arena.
Most of us agreed that kids are expressing themselves in writing more now than ever before. Texting, tweeting, chatting and emailing is writing. LOLs and emoticons can be used indiscriminately to the point of becoming meaningless, but they can also be creative and inventive.
The internet provides a platform open to anybody who wants to write. When students ask me how they can become authors, I suggest they start by publishing their work in cyberspace and seeing what sort of feedback they get.
While this is wonderfully democratic, removing all editorial filters allows writers to get away with ill-informed and poorly-expressed opinions, not to mention woeful spelling and bad grammar. If they find readers who don’t mind, does it matter? Will the cream eventually rise to the top?
I fear for the future of good journalism, of well-researched, well-written stories and even for the survival of literature itself. My hope is that if stories continue to be well told there will be people who will want to listen to them. The medium may change, but gifted storytellers of the tribe will always have a place by the campfire. The more sophisticated, demanding reading won’t appeal to everybody, but then probably it never did.
Hamlet may have less to say to us when reduced to a 140-character tweet. But I googled it. Lots have people have had fun with the exercise. So did I: ‘I WAS MURDERD@Hamletsdadsghost. Hamlet pissed mum married uncle!! Puts on play. Everyone dies. OMG!!! ‘
It’s fast food fun but, as Miriam Cosic pointed out, the joke only works for those of us who know some Shakespeare.