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Post date: Apr 24, 2012 4:33:19 AM

Talking With Your Fingers

New York Times


The latest word on the street about English in America – always bad, it seems – is that the shaggy construction of texting and e-mail spells the death of formal writing. Yet the truth about English in America – always sunnier, in fact – is that the looseness and creativity of these new ways of writing are a sign of a new sophistication in our society. This becomes clear when we understand that in the proper sense, e-mail and texting are not writing at all.

Historical perspective is useful. Writing was only invented roughly 5,500 years ago with the emergence of cuneiform picture writing in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey, whereas humanity arose a good 200,000 years ago, with language probably tracing back at least 50,000 years and most likely much further. According to one estimate, if Homo sapiens had existed for 24 hours, writing only came along after 11 p.m.

Thus spoken language is fundamental, while written language is an artifice. Not surprisingly, then, the earliest writing was based on the way people talk, and that meant short sentences with a direct logical throughline. Researchers have found that even educated people today speak in word packets of 7 to 10 words a pop.

Take one of the world’s oldest literary texts, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in which we see word packets more than what we would call elaborate prose. Ishtar says:

I will pull down the Gates of Hell itself,

Crush the doorposts and flatten the door,

And I will let the dead leave

And let the dead roam the earth

And they shall eat the living.

Early texts pattern this way worldwide: Homer, Middle English narratives and even the Hebrew Bible are similar. However, while speaking is largely subconscious and rapid, writing and reading are deliberate and slow. Over time, writers took advantage of this and started crafting tapeworm sentences of a kind rarely used in casual speech. Only in writing could phraseology like that in Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 2” (1781) become common:

The whole engagement lasted above twelve hours; till the gradual retreat of the Persians was changed into a disorderly flight, of which the shameful example was given by the principal leader, and the Surenas himself. They were pursued to the gates of Ctesiphon; and the conquerors might have entered the dismayed city, if their general, Victor, who was dangerously wounded with an arrow, had not conjured them to desist from a rash attempt, which must be fatal, if it were not successful.

At this point, two forms of language coexist in societies: choppy speech and crafted prose. No ancient Roman spoke the way Virgil and Cicero wrote. Even today, only about 100 of the world’s 6,000 languages are written much, and none of the 5,900 unwritten ones are spoken in Gibbonesque paragraphs.

Leah Horowitz

In an earlier America, then, one could hear speeches like William Jennings Bryan’s floridly oratorical, carefully written “Cross of Gold” speech given at the Democratic National Convention in 1896 (“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”) while ordinary people spoke much as we do today. The more anthropologically minded novelists depicted them doing it, such as Sinclair Lewis’s street urchins in “Main Street”: “Hey, lemme’lone,” “Quit, dog-gone you, looka what you went and done, you almost spilled my glass swater.” Gibbon is a distant presence here.

Fast forward to today, when we newly confront writing that seems much like the chatter of these pre-World War I street toughs, in its economy, spontaneity and even vulgarity. There is a virtual cult of concision – OMG, LOL and such – and little interest in the niceties of Strunk & White on capitalization or punctuation. We think of the elegant letters even modestly educated Civil War soldiers wrote and wonder how we got from “I know I shall be thinking all the time ‘If it was just my darling Loulie how different it would be’ ” to “C U later.”

Yet the brevity, improvisation and in-the-moment quality of e-mails and texts are those grand old defining qualities of spoken language. Keyboard technology, allowing us to produce and receive written communication with unprecedented speed, allows something hitherto unknown to humanity: written conversation. In this sense, they are not “writing” in the sense we are accustomed to. They are fingered speech.

A sense that e-mail and texting are “poor writing” is analogous, then, to one that the Rolling Stones produce “bad music” because they don’t use violas. Note that one cannot speak capital letters or punctuation. If we accept e-mail and texting as a new way of talking, then their casualness with matters of case and commas is not only expected but unexceptionable.

Even if we call this new usage a form of writing, we can see Anglophone societies as now having two kinds of writing. For formal contexts, there is the long-lined kind that requires schooling and practice to master. Then there is a more natural form paralleling the way we speak for informal contexts – which are, after all, most of our lives.

Many praise rap as democratic, in that performing it is accessible to people without access to musical instruments and formal training. Texting is the linguistic equivalent. Would we prefer the era when the standard for all writing, even to close friends and family, was the likes of McGuffey’s Reader passages such as “The quail is peculiarly a domestic bird, and is attached to his birthplace and the home of his forefathers. The various members of the aquatic families educate their children in the cool summer of the far north, and bathe their warm bosoms in July …”?

E-mail and texting are also just plain handy, allowing the recipient more flexibility in answering, usable amidst noise and even allowing a medium of flirtation less invasive than a phone call but quicker than a letter.

The only other problem we might see in something both democratic and useful is that it will exterminate actual writing. However, there are no signs of this thus far. In 2009, the National Assessment of Education Performance found a third of American eighth graders – the ones texting madly right now — reading at or above basic proficiency, but crucially, this figure has changed little since 1992, except to rise somewhat. Just as humans can function in multiple languages, they can also function in multiple kinds of language. An analogy would be the vibrant foodie culture that has thrived and even flowered despite the spread of fast food.

Who among us really fears that future editions of this newspaper will be written in emoticons? Rather, a space has reopened in public language for the chunky, transparent, WYSIWYG quality of the earliest forms of writing, produced by people who had not yet internalized a sense that the flavor of casual language was best held back from the printed page.

This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style. Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats. As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers.

John McWhorter, contributing editor at The New Republic and columnist for The New York Daily News, teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University. His latest book is “What Language Is, What It Isn’t and What It Could Be.”