Language: Evolving or Devolving?

Over at Ten Pound Hammer, those guys seem really excited about Microblogging, so much so that they seem to be arguing in favor of the 140 character limit inherent in existing Microblogging formats (which, it needs to be pointed out exists because of the Microblogging idea being tied to Cell Phone Text Messaging). Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Microblogging too, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have my TWiT Army updates in the sidebar of this here blog, but I disagree with the idea that the 140 Character limit is a ‘good’ thing.

The limit of 140 characters has forced normal people, bloggers, and everyone else to become more concise and innovate the way they communicate. Parents and teachers have been sounding the alarm about the decline of their children and students ability to write. I believe their ability is improving, evolving, and becoming more efficient. Why spend time writing out common phrases, when the point can be communicated and read far more quickly. The old mantra used to be a minimum amount of words or a minimum page size, I believe the twenty first century will be about efficiency and speed, not about arbitrary sizes and formality.

The above is straight from Ten Pound Hammer, and is the part I, in particular take issue with. The idea is a simple one: As communication mediums evolve, so must the language used to communicate over them. The Text Message, and Microblogs that rose out of it, the argument goes, has led to a period of rapid evolution of the English language, which the author of Ten Pound Hammer believes to be a good thing.

I will begin my argument by holding that what has led to the change in language used in Text Messaging has far less to do with the 140 character limit, and more to do with the poor text input which was available on mobile phones. Even with technologies like T9, which is common on most cellphones today, typing complete words is non-trivial, while T9 can be quickly trained to handle the shorthand which has become common in Text Messaging.

And shorthand isn’t a bad thing, Secretaries all used to know how to take dictation in shorthand, Court Stenographers still use shorthand in taking down court cases. But the Shorthand exists to fill a certain need, namely to transcribe spoken word quickly into a written form, something which at which standard English is admittedly weak. The shorthand developed for Text Messaging (which is itself derived from the shorthand used in Internet Chat Rooms for several decades prior to the Text Message), developed for two reasons, first to deal with the poor input, and second the 140-character limit, which exists today merely as a strangling limitation from a day gone by.

But, to address the Hammer’s point more directly, is the 140-character limit making us better communicators? Absolutely not. The problem with Slang and Abbreviations, both of which excel in modern shorthands (but have been common in language forever), is that they are only directly accessible to people from a similar social background to yourself. Sure, other people can understand, but it requires a slight context switch, making the language less effective. For a good example of the Slang issue, go watch Episode 1 of Series 11) of the BBC’s Top Gear. Particularly the segment on “Building a Better Police Car”. Each of the three men; Clarkson, Hammond and May, refer to Police as something unique among them, but common in the part of England that their from.

Admittedly, you can usually figure out what the slang means, but it takes some time, may require inquiry, and altogether slows down the communication process. Even if you are familiar with the slang, the pattern recognition parts of your brain, still needs to map the slang to the shared meaning. All the meaningful evolutions of language in the last century have generally been built around shortening the distance to the shared meaning. And technology has aided that, it is now easier to do the necessary research to figure out what is meant. Slang can travel farther and more effectively than ever before. People can communicate today with people they never would have dreamed of communicating with fifteen years ago.

Technology has gone a long way to evolve language, to make us all more capable communicators. But it has done this by enabling communication, not limiting it. Being concise isn’t about saving characters, it’s about communicating in a way that reduces the cognitive dissonance experienced by your audience. It’s about not repeating yourself, which a minimum page size supposedly helps with. Writing is hard. Writing effectively is harder, and effective writing is about using enough space to say what needs to be said. Imposing arbitrary character limits on this is ineffective and counterproductive. Mostly, though, being concise is about expressing your idea fully, while making the fewest assumptions possible about the knowledge of your audience, and still expressing yourself well.

The 140 Character limit imposed by Text Messaging and Microblogging is making us worse communicators, because it is making us have to think harder to both encode what we’re saying, and decode what we’re writing. It doesn’t allow effective communication, because we are forced to assume too much. Admittedly, this is fine for casual conversation, which is what Text Messaging and Microblogging was designed for. However, the way we communicate in formal contexts requires the formality that the Hammer seems to be against. Writing isn’t as expressive as Speaking, and it never will be, but it is far less ephemeral, and if we’re unable to communicate our ideas effectively in the written word, our ideas are far less likely to outlive ourselves.