Is the new digital world shaping a new English?

I have just read a really interesting article by Annie Murphy Paul called “Is English Making Us Dyslexic?”

This article discusses the reasons that more Americans have problems with spelling and language acquisition than Italians (in proportion to size of population). The author states that the Italian language is much more straightforward than English and almost 100% phonetic.She states that the problems with the irregularity of English have been known for many years and explains how Noah  Webster changed certain words from the original spelling to new and more straightforward spellings in “American English” (as we define it here on the other side of the pond where we are stuck with the rather more clumsy original version of the language!). For example removing the u from words like colour and honour and changing the c in words like offence and pretence to an s.

I remember the first time that I saw the words “tonite” and thru (which has come out as spelling mistakes on my spellchecker as I am writing this). They looked strange to someone who was raised to read the words “tonight” and “through”. But how does one really get across the many different ways that “-ough” is used in conventional English to a child who is struggling to comprehend an essentially illogical process?

I am assuming that your rejoinder is that I did master this process and that it helped me become “literate” and achieve my academic success (whatever that may be). But the author’s points are not about those who do achieve the standards and learn the difficult to learn language despite the problems, but those who struggle to spell.

How many children are put off by the mechanics of the language and the need to spell it all accurately? How many teachers expect spelling to be a necessity in a written piece? What about the meaning? What about the freedom to express your thoughts however untidy it may seem or badly spelled?

Now the author of the article posits a very interesting idea related to the developments of our new digital society. She talks about  the way that new forms of communication have led to a more efficient use of the English language thus: “digital communication by email, text and tweet has nudged our staid language into its most dynamic state of flux since the invention of the printing press“.

I think that this is a very powerful development. It was one that Professor David Crystal touched upon in his excellent lecture on the changing use of the English language. I wrote a post about this talk called “David Crystal debunks myths about texting and Twitter” . There is obviously a lot of interest in this topic. It has been my most popular post of the last year and is looked at by some people on an almost daily basis!

Both David Crystal and Annie Murphy Paul get us to look at the validity of making language work in the digital age. The implications for our schools, colleges and universities is enormous. Language is a human construct it should allow us to communicate with each other and should not become a barrier due to out-of-date usage.

I look forward to responses to this post, particularly from the traditionalists who seem intent on foisting an archaic language on our increasingly under-pressure children, many of whom find it a barrier to expressing themselves and  getting their voice heard.

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