Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stop the Clock: Treating English as Something Static

Brendan Holloway
For some bookworms, bibliophiles, and for some who otherwise love everything about the experience of reading a book, the transition from paperback to digitalization has been, to say the least, infelicitous.  They say, “There’s nothing like the smell of an old book,” or “I can’t curl up with an electronic device like I can with a [paper] book.”  They want to make sure they can continue to have the types of reading experiences they are familiar with, and have grown to love. On the other hand, there are people, like myself, who are embracing technology and the ways it is changing how the world communicates.  Please know that many of us love books too, and at least as much as anyone else.  I grew up reading books made of paper, and I love the smell of them still.  I get it, and these things still excite me; paper books still excite me.   But I also know that I can curl up with my iPhone or Kindle and have an enjoyable reading experience no matter the medium.  Beyond the physicality that lends itself to nostalgia over our paper books and the pragmatic splendor of going digital, the real debate is, I believe, in the effects this current transition will have on literacy.  But it all so often seems that the focus of the debate lies heavily in wanting to or not wanting to use the technology, and we do little to involve ourselves with the concepts of this conversation that matter.

Jay Bolter describes this transition from paper to digital formats as a “remediation,” where “newer mediums take place of an older one” (23). That is to say, the book’s changes will not exactly reinvent the wheel--or in this case the English sentence.  We are experiencing a makeover of our literary materials: an extreme book makeover.  But if this was all it was, it doesn’t seem like a worthy debate at all.  And, if this makeover involved books alone, perhaps many debaters would concede that this is all for the best and technology would win out.  But electronic communication devices do not just supply readers with recorded output from an authority--like an author or publisher.  Now everyone with some money to spare for communication devices can become an authority on language themselves.  And publish this language on the internet without much thought.  This particular remediation has shifted our notion of literacy.

For many centuries, the way information was diffused from the socio-hierarchical top to the lay-men at the bottom, written English stayed relatively fixed--by comparison to today anyway.  Authors in print were not only experts on the ideas they wrote about, they were the experts on the written word in general.  Because pages of a book do not change, the medium suggested a fixed or permanent way writing was to be done (9).   Or at least it felt that way to the masses who vested their trust in authors as a fixed and permanent figurehead.  So, if you wrote, you emulated them, or tried to--there was no other way to be a literate person than to use options the authorities let you know you had. 

Who were the masses anyway to rebel from such linguistic suppression?  Mass literacy in most cultures is relatively new.  The masses are now entering what might be analogized as an adolescent phase of literacy: they are talking back and making their own decisions; they’re coming of age. So, like the keys to a parent’s car, the reigns of language change has been taken over from the elite minority (the parents in this analogy) by the majority of language users--the literate adolescents.  Actual language users are now the authority over their own language because they have the tools, thus the power, to assume the role of information transmitter.  The average language user is no longer a passive sponge absorbing the rules of language others have put before them, but instead, they are now driving the language forward, good or bad, because they can.  And so our English language is changing, and rapidly so.

Maybe it is the speed at which this change occurs that causes panic about how our world is trending towards illiteracy.  Of course, any statement like that is premature; language change does not indicate potential illiteracy.  This is especially true considering the speakers themselves are changing their own language. And there has been such major changes to the English language that our notion of the language hardly resembles what our Anglican ancestors spoke and wrote hundreds of years ago.  Yet here we are, me writing and you reading; two literate English speakers who could not communicate with our ancient predecessors.  So, yes, like remediation of our physical texts, what we fill our texts with has also changed and evolved.  But here is where things get complicated for us.  Remediation and how language users use language are closely related.  We just have not seen effects of remediation change language so quickly.  Perhaps that’s a downside of knowing too much about how we know things.  We are so absorbed with reflection and assessment that our brains are now trained to acknowledge these changes while they occur.  Still, remediation of the book and successive language change has happened to us before, and at the same time.

When we talk about the advent of the printing press and the effects it had on the masses, we tend to focus on the printing process and diffusion of literacy among the social classes.  Until recently, that focus seemed just.  However, the printing press is only part of the “ communication revolution [of the] late fifteenth century” (Einstein, 245).  And now we overlook a linguistic revolution of English that independently occurred at the same time with peril.  Compared to what’s happening today,  surely language changes were slowly paced: it took a few hundred years for Middle English to get close to what we speak today.  But around the same time as the appearance of the printing press, we had hegemonic speakers driving the language forward. Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, found the endings of certain verbs a little too square, uncool. The young Virgin Queen and her friends, within one generation, had changed hath and doth to has and does, replacing the verb ending -th with a sibilant -s (Nevalainen, 188). This change, which socially-important people like the queen and her friends helped along, was not a random linguistic act: the popularity of this -s sound traveled north from the ports and harbors of Southern England, and the -th verb ending was proliferated from the language throughout most of the country.  Eventually, this sound change made its way into books, fixed itself within the language, and inevitably became rule.  It took hundreds of years for this rule to be settled by authorities.

What do we do when changes like this are emanate?  What happens when changes like this are immediate?  We face these two scenarios because of technology.  But it is nearly impossible to say which progresses language change faster, technology or social need.  Our social need to convey meaning has always had a symbiotic relationship with the technology we use to produce and distribute meaning.  Communication technology advances because of the needs of communicators--and by communicators I mean the world’s population because the system of language change I describe works the same way among un-contacted tribes of the Brazilian Rain Forest as it does for book publishers in New York City.  When the technology of communication advances, we communicators are provided with more linguistic options to convey meaning.  And when we take advantage of those options, the way we use our language inevitably changes.  This is the kind of language change that occurs when a new college students embark upon academic writing for the first time: material presented to them in a basic Composition 101 course informs them of options they have when writing academic papers.  This is also the kind of language change that occurs when communicators only have 140 characters through which to express themselves, like when on Twitter: communicators weigh their options and see truncation and abbreviation as bona fide solutions to their linguistic problems.  And really, they are solutions.  It’s systematic.

As English educators we are put in a tough spot.  This is why we say with one breath, “language is a living thing that ebbs and flows, but you must adhere to the rules that have nothing to do with how the language wants to behave.”  And we  require students to follow the rules as if language was static and unimpressionable because we have responsibilities to the academy to produce good writers.  Good writing, in the eyes of the academy, would require academic language.  Which has not changed much in light of the way the actual world speaks English these days.   Thus, academic language is increasingly alienating our students who otherwise speak and write without accountability until they get to us.  So what do we do with these little Queen Elizabeths, who run around as the authority of their own tongue?  Do we give them room to speak and write as they choose?  Certainly we want them to incorporate their identity and voice in their academic papers.  But what about the words they choose?  We take away options that were naturally processed into their language and  provide them with options that were arbitrarily designed hundreds of years ago.  This is what we do.  This is what we must do.  But if we do it, then at least know that the way our students speak and write reflects the world they live in.  It does not reflect a level of intelligence, or ignorance.  It reflects the natural way language changes; it reflects the natural way the speaker knows to communicate.
Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. New York: Routeledge, 2001. Print.
Einstein, Elizabeth. “Defining the Initial Shift.” The Book History Reader.  ed. David Finklestein and Alistar McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Nevalainen, Terttu. “Mapping Language Change in Tudor England.” The Oxford History of English. ed. Lyndon Mugglestone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read everyone’s comments on Brendan’s blog, so if I repeat something that someone has mentioned please excuse me! I think Brendan has highlighted a lot of issues/concerns that we are facing in society today. People seem to think that they must give up one “medium” for the other. I think that’s where the problem lies. Brendan claims that he’d be equally comfortable reading on his iPhone or Kindle. I agree that an “enjoyable reading expereince” doesn’t necessarily have to come from a paper book. Paper books are actually more irksome then electronic devices, but we’re so “familiar” with them that we choose to ignore their deficiencies. They’re heavier (try snuggling with a book and keep track of the many times you change position) and they don’t last as long as an e-texts. That “new book smell” is a connection to the familiarity we harbor for paper books. That being said, I still like paper books because I feel transported the book when I hold it (without any distractions - no tabs). I feel paper books help create the imaginary/real world we’re delving into.

    I think Brendan’s last paragraph is important to consider because it’s challenging teaching/learning academic discourse. Students might feel as if their voice is getting stifled under academic discourse. Over the summer I taught English 101 for ESL students. One student wrote a beautiful one sentence/paragraph long piece. When I overlooked the fact that the whole paragraph was a sentence and focused on the content, I was amazed by his creativity. It was a creative writing piece written by a student that came to the USA two years ago! My main concern at that moment was to encourage his writing, but explain how to switch from one discourse to another. We had a discussion about the different discourses and which ones to use for different purposes. I hope in the future I can continue helping students keep their “voice,” but also learn the different discourses.


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