Thursday, April 26, 2012

Speak to Me in a Language I Can Hear

John McWhorter:

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.

...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.

For curmudgeons like me, the problem isn't that texting and tweeting is an unfortunate diversion from the nuanced thinking and writing that people would be doing normally. Most people are trite and boring and I don't waste a valuable moment lamenting the possibility that it could have ever been otherwise. No, I agree fully that it makes sense to see texting as a form of speech rather than writing. But as in speech, so in print: I'm irritated by people who never shut the fuck up long enough to allow contemplation to work its magic and produce thoughts that are interesting and worth hearing. This is why I complain about the hyperactive, overstimulated environment of social media—it's an incubator for the qualities I despise in relationships, like superficiality and haste. There's little time to do anything but react reflexively, which ensures that your output is primarily going to be banal and inchoate.

Yesterday's post, for example, I worked on all day. I started on it in the morning, let it sit while I went to work, proceeded to mull it over while on the job, came home, worked on it a little more, did chores outside while mulling it over some more, and finally finished it in the evening. And I still think it turned out to be a pretty weak effort, despite all that. But I felt like there was something more to be said on the topic, something less obvious and possibly more penetrating, so I kept wrestling with it, hoping that maybe lateral thinking would kick in at some point and provide me with an insight that would make the difference between a good post and one that was just okay. I could have just blurted out the first thought that came to mind and been done in five minutes, quickly on to the next shiny object, but then I would have likely forgotten about the topic before I had a chance to explore any nuance in it.

It's not that social media and texting inevitably doom their participants to drooling idiocy, or that only drooling idiots would want to use them to begin with. But even I, an unambitious blogger, know that the further you allow yourself to get lured into that environment, the more difficult it becomes to do the sort of writing and thinking that gives us such joy. You have to seek out that open, quiet space away from the clamor and din of nonstop chattering, where ideas formerly lurking hesitant and unseen out on the margins might finally be able to approach you.