Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Language Topics - Showing enthusiasm?

Edexcel's Unit 6(b) for A2 English Language requires you to write for 45 minutes on a number of possible language related topics and issues - potentially on anything from 'political correctness' to the mad, bad and dangerous world of spelling. Personally I think there should be more of this in Language teaching - it is a welcome departure from the rigours of 'textual commentary.' It is refreshing because for once you have the opportunity to express your opinion. But how do you successfully display your knowledge of an issue or topic in a way that is enthusiastic, yet balanced? How, for example, might you convey the notion that Lynn Truss should be placed in stocks and endlessly taunted with examples of 'misplaced apostrophes' without sounding as pedantic and intolerant as she is? Well, I attach an example of a response that may give you an idea of what examiners are looking for here. In short it is knowledge - but knowledge with enthusiasm!

Present-day English is being changed by technology. Whole new languages are being invented in internet chatrooms and via texting.

Using examples from language associated with new technology, describe and explain a range of changes which are taking place in language use. Give your views about whether an entirely new language is being invented.



During the past 15 to 20 years there has been a major communications revolution sparked by the emergence of new communication technologies. Mobile Phone and Internet technologies are arguably the most visible examples, at least in terms of popularity and regularity of use. Linguists and social commentators have been quick to explore the impact of this technology on language, with some even suggesting it to be as significant as
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440[s1] . Another significant claim, as revealed in the essay question, suggests that these new technologies have even encouraged the emergence of ‘whole new languages.’

The invention of the printing press impacted so profoundly on language use because it enabled, for the first time, a medium of mass written communication. Its impact on the expansion of literacy and therefore the expansion of ideas helped stimulate the emergence of new thought, as well as helping to secure the eventual ‘standardisation’ of the written word.[s2] Similarly, the emergence of new communication technology has had no less an impact because it too has reached a mass audience. However unlike the printing press, the www and mobile phone appear to have encouraged an apparent departure from standardised linguistic forms. This irony can be largely attributed to the nature of the technology itself. Let me[s3] explain.

E-mailing (WWW) and texting (Mobile-phones) are mechanisms of instant communication. The medium of that communication however is not voice or even the pen, but the keyboard or keypad.
Once ‘sent’ the message arrives at its destination almost immediately – and the response can be equally speedy. [s4] Subsequently the technology encourages (and perhaps, determines) a language that is much more informal and colloquial. The language of text messages has for some become so distinct from standard linguistic forms that it has been given its own name – textese[s5] . What defines textese? It is evidently filled with non-standard spelling and grammar. It is generally colloquial and ignores the conventions of ‘traditional’ orthography. It is semantically loaded yet light in content – it is quick, instant and to the point. Similarly, emailing is equally ‘non-standard’ in its linguistic variety. Add to this the ‘instantaneous’, non-permanent characteristic of this digital dialogue and you have what appears to be the emergence of a truly new language. It lies somewhere between the spoken and the written. [s6] It has its own emerging lexicon – neologisms, acronyms and hieroglyphic codes that are really only meaningful to those competent enough to use the technology in the first place. This could perhaps be used as evidence to support the ‘new language’ assertion: like any language, there are those who can speak it (or should I say, text it?) and there are those who cannot.

The truth is, however, that whole new languages are not being invented at all. [s7]Textese’ is not a new language. It is a new form of English that has emerged in response to a technologically-determined medium of communication. The experience of language is the experience of social change. It is diachronic and evolutionary – language responds to a vast array of influences and adapts itself accordingly. Of course, how we interpret and respond to such changes is largely a reflection of our own attitudes to language[s8] and its use. For example, recent language commentators appear to be expressing a new ‘prescriptivism’ – in short a reaction by those who feel that technology is somehow ‘damaging’ language. Some of this conservatism may be in part due to a fear not so much of the technology, but its users. Texting is penmanship for illiterates!’ [s9] one commentator recently exclaimed. But this elitist hysteria is surely misplaced. Teenagers have always ‘broken the rules’ when writing (and speaking) to each other – the ‘thanx’ that may previously have been written in a letter between pen-pals now becomes the ‘thnx’ of a text or email. It is just now that the speed of communication is making non-standard spelling forms more visible, numerous and indeed imaginative – but this does not imply that the individual scripting the message is unaware of the standardised form – it is just not appropriate for them to use it at that point. Context, again, determines all[s10] .

A further irony becomes evident when we consider the emotive topic of spelling. Pedants who advocate blind conformity to ‘standard orthography’ are increasingly uncomfortable with any forms of language that ignore it – however the spelling that we often find in texts and emails is in fact closer to the original ‘alphabetic principle’ that characterised early English spelling in the first place – namely that it is phonetic and reflects pronunciation rather than the
arbitrary rules constructed by 18th century scholars[s11] who cared more for Latinate etymology than they did anything else. Any child learning to spell has to be told that they must place a ‘u’ in colour and ‘re’ at the end of centre regardless of the fact that this spelling has no relation whatsoever to their pronunciation. Why? Because Dr Johnson said so! In textese and in emails however, our technology literate children are, quite rightly, ignoring Dr Johnson and his like. As David Crystal [s12] points out, it is not a new language that has been born out of technology but a new language variety – and variety, surely, is to be celebrated. It is far more interesting.[s13]



[s1]Reveals historical knowledge (context)

[s2]Shows that technology is not ‘new’ and reveals that the relationship between it and language is “causal” – in other words, one impacts on the other.

[s3]Perfectly acceptable to use personal pronoun – remember this is not a commentary. For once you have the chance to express an opinion!

[s4]Here I am trying to convey a sense of what is ‘new’ about this technology as far as communication is concerned.

[s5]Here I am using relevant terminology as well as reinforcing the idea that a new language is emerging.

[s6]Evidence for the ‘new language’ hypothesis.

[s7]My viewpoint – you may not agree with it, but whatever your position is you must support it with evidence.

[s8]Even though the question did not directly refer to ‘attitudes’, clearly it would be difficult not to consider the various ways in which people have responded to these new technologies and the impact they have had on how language is used.

[s9]Short, snappy quote. Lovely!

[s10]Which is at the heart of a descriptivist perspective

[s11]More historical knowledge.

[s12]Authoritative source – David Crystal is a linguist.

[s13]Try and finish with an enthusiastic assertion – but don’t be too dogmatic.

5 comments:

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