“The big thing about language is that it always changes,” the linguist David Crystal tells Adrienne Raphel of The New Yorker.
You don’t say.
Crystal is publicising his new book, Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (or “Persnickety”, as The New Yorker has it and as, apparently, it is in the colonies. Lord love a duck!)
The point the graphomaniac professor (“author, co-author, or editor of more than a hundred books about language”) is making is the now familiar, not to say tired, one that we really should not get het up about what we perceive as linguistic abuses or horrors, that it is foolish to believe there are generally accepted standards to be applied and that to think in terms of correct usage is to embrace a fusty, right-wing orthodoxy or – horror of horrors – indulge in “moral panic” (a concept that now seems to be the first port of call for every lazy “radical” thinker).
There are two extreme views about punctuation, Crystal asserts. Thefirstisthatitdoesntmatteratall and the second is that it is desirable, even essential, for clarity (note that this is an extreme view) and that it “shows our identity as educated people”. Well, boo to the latter of course. Bloody snobs.
“Since the Internet came along, it [change] has never moved so fast.” This has helped to make finger-wagging very popular. Lynne Truss’s 2004 best-seller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” for instance, cried that “everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference.” In 2008, Crystal published “Txtng: The Gr8 Db8,” a response to what he describes as the “moral panic” that had been spreading in the United Kingdom and the United States since around 2000, when texting became an everyday experience. A 2007 Daily Mail article titled “I h8 txt msgs” had declared that “SMS vandals” were “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed “innovations” of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.
Seven years later, that db8 seems quaint. Daniel Donoghue, who teaches a course on the history of English, at Harvard … said that just after “Txting: The Gr8 Db8” was published, an undergrad [yuck ‑ drb] told him that Crystal’s title was already outdated: phone technology has made alphabet texting so easy that “anyone going for the shortcut ‘gr8’ was proclaiming how behind the times she was.” (Louis Menand made a similar point when he wrote about the book for this magazine.) Crystal wrote to me that “very few older kids in the UK use txtese abbreviations now. They’re not cool any more. One student told me recently that he stopped abbreviating when his parents started!”
The latter point certainly has a ring of truth to it anyway. I clearly remember my horror at seeing my uncles and aunties “doing the twist” at a family wedding circa 1972. If I had ever up to that point tried to simulate Mr Checker’s dance moves I’m sure I didn’t afterwards.
There is nothing more dear to young people than getting things right, which is closely allied to being the same as everyone else. In the 60s and 70s one of the things that it was essential to get right was the name of groups (a few years later called bands and certainly not to be called groups). There were the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Animals; but then there were also Cream, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Fleetwood Mac etc. Article or no article? It made me almost physically ill to hear my father casually refer to the Fleetwood Mac or the Cream (the Creams?) and I think I took it as just another sign of his terminal ignorance and uncoolness. It was only much later that I began to suspect that he was having fun at my expense.
Similar effects can be achieved today in the war against young people with the merest shift of stress in the pronunciation of the terms denoting the gadgets (one of my father’s words) they are so much in love with. Even fossils like me tend, these days, to have a rough idea what an ’iPhone, a ‘laptop or a ‘memory stick are (the a‘postrophe indicates where the stress falls in the word). And if one talks of such things in front of a youngster one will normally elicit little more than a pitying stare. The results veer quickly towards hugely enjoyable panic and consternation however – JEEZUS GRANPA! – when one just slightly shifts the stress pattern to lap’top, i’Phone, or – this is my favourite – memory ‘stick. Call the thirteen-year-old in and try it out. You have to keep a straight face, mind. It seldom fails to amuse.
Raphel on Crystal in The New Yorker: http://bit.ly/1OW3uMI