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TwitTer versus thought

ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

Teachers of proper English read Tweetspeak, the abbreviated language of Twitter, and cringe.

Take this “tweet” by Kawkia Mitchell, a linebacker with the Buffalo Bills, as reported by the Buffalo News last year: “Back at the dorms. Bout to lay down. Early morning workout, short 7 on 7 prac. And a nite prac. 2morrow 2 more days til we head home.”

Proper English isn’t necessary for Mitchell’s resume, but it is important for most other folks. That is why learning Standard English is an important part of education from kindergarten to graduate school. But in the past decade, with the advent of texting and “tweets,” words and thoughts have been diminished to sentence fragments.

Techno communication uses “2” as a substitute for ‘to,” “too” and “two.” In this efficient language, subjects of sentences are dropped and one letter such as “U” substitutes for words.

 It is true that most people know the proper way to spell “you” and most people would not spell “about” without an “a” if they were writing a potential employer, but that’s because most people grew up spelling words correctly in the first place. The question is: What will happen to language in the future?

Many adults and all young people are so glued to their cell phones that they wouldn’t think twice about texting while attending class. I know this because when I’m teaching, virtually all my students – adults 18 to 60 – are holding their cell phones and checking every message that comes through. If I didn’t discourage the practice, many would spend half of every class with downcast eyes texting away. Needless to say, it’s difficult to keep the attention of cell phone addicts.

That is why cell phones are banned in most high schools, though I’ve read that many districts get complaints from some parents who now think they must be in touch with their kids every minute of the day, even if their children are in the middle of dissecting a frog.

This new addiction to being connected to friends and family 24/7 is a classroom distraction and a hindrance to learning, but it’s the constant stream of abbreviations and misspellings that I’m beginning to worry about.

If young people learn “Tweetspeak” before learning proper English, undoing the damage could be an almost impossible task. Teaching English has always been a tough job, but it’s getting tougher by the day.

Tweetspeak seems harmless, and maybe it is, but it reminds me of the “Newspeak” of George Orwell’s 1984, a novel written after World War II that warned future generations of the dangers of totalitarianism. Even though his novel predicting the death of democracy by 1984 proved false, some of his predictions ring true, even though they’re evolving in unpredictable ways.

Big Brother’s Newspeak is an example. In the language of “BB,” the word “bad” is simply “ungood,” and words like inferior, spoiled, evil and disobedient are nonexistent. Big Brother, Orwell’s name for the dictator ruling Great Britain (Oceania) in 1984, eliminates thousands of words in a new dictionary with the intent of shrinking language to just enough words to get a simple message across. The government’s ultimate intent is to control its party members’ thought processes so completely that they are incapable of dissention.

 “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Syme asks Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist. “In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words to express it.

“The whole climate of thought will be different,” Syme continues. “In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
Newspeak is a shrunken version of the English language, created with the intent of shrinking the range of human consciousness. “Thought crime” is a thought that runs counter to government orthodoxy. In the novel, there aren’t many humans left capable of “thought crime.” Because Winston Smith is of an older generation capable of reasoning and speaking “Oldspeak,” or Standard English, he’s capable of rebelling against government oppression. His intelligence ultimately brings extreme persecution.

The resistance I encounter trying to teach “critical thinking skills” to college level freshmen and sophomores also leads to musing about Orwell’s warnings. On the surface, texting and tweeting have no connection with Newspeak.

Tweetspeak is the creation of capitalism, not government, but the only difference is the lack of manipulative intent.
Tweetspeak is the voluntary cannibalism of Standard English. It allows people to communicate quickly in 140 words, but it doesn’t allow for correct grammar, complexity of thought or expression. In itself, that may not be a threat to society as we know it, but over time ‘to,’ “too” and “two” could be lost and “brilliance” could succumb to the lesser form of “good.”

When the words to express thought diminish to misspellings and parts of words, the ability of thought itself is narrowed. Educators are already struggling to challenge students to think and work out answers on their own. For the most part, students want packaged answers. Memorization requires less studying.

 I once had a student who said: “I don’t want to think. Tell me what I need to know.”

This attitude, all too frequent in recent high school graduates, makes me also worry about the future of thought itself.

In the name of fun or saving time, tweeters focus on petty day-to-day details in a diminished language and ignore the larger issues that require thinking skills. With minds focused elsewhere, large-scale adherence to ideologues is a danger.

Being told what to do, think, say or write is easy and less time-consuming, but it doesn’t bode well for a free society that is dependent on a thoughtful populace.
 

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