Oral history

Peter Suderman has an amusing rejoinder to parents who say that text messaging is robbing them of their children:

I suppose I can accept that someone would be confused about the technical process of text messaging — figuring out how to navigate a phone’s menus in order to send an SMS is usually fairly easy, but perhaps not intuitive for everyone.

But how, if I might ask, can anyone understand the process but be confused about how to type more than a few phrases? This seems to me rather like understanding how to how to write in English and how to send an email but being confused by the prospect of typing anything more than a limited number of pre-determined sentences. Once you’ve learned how to type one phrase on a number pad, what makes any additional phrases more difficult? Is the subject really a total technical illiterate, or is this bad reporting? Is there something I’m missing?

As you may have heard me say, I'm an enormous fan of John McWhorter's book on the decline of formal language, Doing Our Own Thing. I talked about it with him when we did a Bloggingheads together (the segments on language are here and here.) One of the most fascinating things I learned from the book is how different oral and written languages are--languages without writing use short, redundant sentences, while written ones support a great deal more complexity in sentence structure.

McWhorter's thesis is that there has been a marked decline in formal language in America since the 1960s, which followed a long slow decline from the 19th century. It seems to me that this marks our transition from a written culture into a verbal one: we moved from speeches meant for printing in newspapers, to speeches meant for broadcasting. In the broader culture, people shift from letters to the telephone, from books to movies and television.

I wonder now if the internet isn't marking a transition back to a written culture. Almost everyone my age or younger communicates more often by email, IM, and SMS than they do by telephone. And people are shifting back to text for news as they abandon television news for the web. That's opening up, as the piece Peter makes fun of argues, a real culture gap between parents and kids. I wonder if it won't also eventually bring us a little more verbal complexity than we enjoyed in the 20th century.