Language as a Blunt Tool of the Digital Age

Posted on: 18/01/2010

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA — On a dance floor in a plaza of this many-hued Caribbean city, salsa was oozing from vast speakers. Latin feet were shuffling. Voices were singing along in impassioned Spanish.

And then came a song that electrified the mostly Colombian crowd as few songs had. It was “I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas, which electrifies my generation wherever they live in the world. When historians of culture look back at this wave of globalization, the song’s lyrics may be of use.

They repeat the hope “that tonight’s gonna be a good night” over and over and over. There is little elaboration. And yet, as global anthems go, this is lyrically ambitious. The music that links the global young today is one of thumps and beeps, sounding to older music lovers like a room full of malfunctioning computers.

This is not the only way in which words seem to matter ever less to my generation, and not the only way in which this desertion may be the bitter price of a good thing: a world that talks to itself more easily than ever, by taking the art of talking less seriously.

We are all linguistic utilitarians now. At work and home, in person and on our devices, function rules and form pales. Capitalization, commas, full sentences, the writing of words without numbers in them, the avoidance of jargon and mixed metaphors — these norms are suffering, unable to persuade multitaskers of their worth.

Of course, anxiety about language is very old. When technologies turn, when new social groups rise, when politics change, critics predict the end of literacy. George Orwell, in a seminal essay in 1946, warned that pretentious diction and meaningless words and other bad habits were corroding politics. He criticized the belief “that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light.”

Orwell, writing during the Cold War, was especially worried about the ideological misuse of language. In our own day, the threat would seem to come instead from a new trinity of technology, globalization and business, which seem to exert a pragmatic pressure on language, to undermine the idea of language as an end in itself.

Technology is changing how we read, write and reason, as a growing number of critics suggest. Television has long been accused of making us stupid, but now the Internet, though overflowing with text, is also blamed. In an essay in The Atlantic last year, the technology writer Nicholas Carr argued that the power-skimming, link-hopping and window-toggling that define the Internet experience have eroded the old practice of reading unbroken stretches of prose, with grave implications for our writing.

E-mail, meanwhile, has become a linguistic wasteland — even among language lovers. Cellphone keypads make us promise to “call u back after the mtg.” Twitter coaxes us to misspell to meet the 140-character maximum. Blogs, though they seek to bring out the writer in us, are notable for how little stress they put on the actual writing. How many literary greats has the rise of the blogosphere produced?

Globalization, in bringing cultures together, exerts its own pragmatic pressure. With English the escalator of globalized success, the language’s center of gravity is tilting away from English-speaking lands. A stripped-down English of catchphrases and trite idioms, light on richness, is becoming the true global language.

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