A couple of days ago I blogged on the question: Is texting ruining our relationships? Following a New York Times article by Sherry Turkle, I answered this question with: “Quite possibly. At least sometimes.”
Well, the Times is at it again. In “Talking with Your Fingers,” John McWhorter responds to the frequently heard charge that texting and e-mailing are destroying our ability to write decent English. McWhorter begins this way:
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.
Now, given that McWhorter is an academic and a writer, with a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford, not to mention a professor of linguistics at a number of fine universities, you might expect him to add his voice to the cacophony of criticism of texting, e-mailing, and the like. But, in fact, McWhorter is much more positive about the future of writing in our society.
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.
He means that texting and e-mailing are actually more a kind of spoken language than written language:
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.
So, according to McWhorter, we can continue in our society to have more informal speech, which includes spoken conversation, texting, and emailing, and also more formal use of language in writing. We don’t have to be afraid that texting will ruin our ability to write.
I found McWhorter’s article engaging because I would have assumed that texting, e-mailing, tweeting, status updating, and the like would tend to impoverish our ability to write. WcWhorter has made me think, and for this I am grateful.
I still do think, though, that texting & Co. will have an impact on writing, and that this impact will mostly be negative. If I’m used to writing relatively short bits, and if I regularly write these bits without regard for grammar, punctuation, depth, or beauty, doesn’t it seem likely that my serious writing will be affected?
I am particularly concerned about the tendency of texting and e-mailing to be spontaneous rather than thoughtful, shallow rather than deep, trivial rather than significant. Are we not, at least at some level, training our minds to communicate superficially? Moreover, I fear that the distractions offered by texting and other media are adding to the problem, by keeping us from devoting the time and attention required if we are going to think and therefore write anything of real value.