Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Is the web destroying our language?

Ben Kingsley seems to think so.

At The People Speak event, he suggested digital distractions in “the cyber planet we’re now living in” has resulted in ever decreasing attention spans. He blamed the internet for stopping many people being able to “think and speak in paragraphs”.
He said: “I’m here to share the power of the spoken word and the resilience and beauty of the English language. I’m concerned about the disintegration of our sublimely beautiful language, which is the spine of our culture and has produced the greatest dramatists ever. You set that diamond against the trash that it’s becoming – it’s shocking. We have a language that’s like sprung steel and we’re turning it into chewing gum.”

My initial reaction to his comments was anger that someone so linked to the arts was denigrating the development of language and those who use digital platforms. Coming back to the statement, I thought I’d investigate several of the many points Ben throws up.

The rise and fall of the Attention Span

There is one point that looks credible. Attention spans are decreasing. There is certainly some evidence for this but looking closely at the studies, I’m not completely convinced by these arguments.

Many of the reports are by interested parties – a PR related study by Lloyds TSB Insurance for example; studies that compare now with the nineteenth century. The most recent study from the University of Iowa compared children who spent less than two hours in front of a screen with children who spent more than two hours.

When you add in computer time at school and a couple of TV programmes, I’d be hard pressed to find enough children who spend less than 2 hours of screen time.

The inference from this is that screen time is bad. It prevents you from doing something worthy like reading a book which will enrich your intelligence more. This in itself is a flawed concept. Reading Tolstoy or Dickens might be rewarding, but what if you read Mills and Boon? Is watching the latest documentary on natural history less valuable? Is viewing science or law blogs mind numbing and watching a play enriching?

The communications stream

What has changed is choice of entertainment. When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, music came from a limited number of radio stations or from tapes and then CDs. The internet was sparse and very slow. Mobile phones had the capacity to show a two colour screen and cost the earth. TV was restricted to 3 or 4 channels. Communications were more concentrated.

What the bombast of Kingsley ignores is that communication has become broader meaning we have more choice to select what we want to hear. A diet of X-factor, Coronation Street and Facebook isn’t going to enrich me as much as watching the latest dramatic production on TV, reading the Jack of Kent blog and reading Dickens on a kindle (surely that’s screen time too).

There is a level of competition in the communications channels that means we can scan certain documents or programmes, but I was taught at University that whilst certain text should be read in full, others should be sped read to absorb the basic principles, so this approach is hardly un-academic.

A chewing gum language

Another implication is that language is being eroded by this digitisation. I disagree. Let’s go back to the 80s when many children spent a huge amount of time playing manic miner and watching the limited TV. Is this more likely to produce good language skills than the teenager of today, able to discover interesting content online in seconds?

We often assume people sink to the lowest denominator, but that isn’t a correct assumption. Equally we all enjoy a guilty pleasure from time to time and I’m sure there is something extremely low brow which Kingsley enjoys.

One thing that marks the best wordsmiths out is a strong vocabulary. A written vocabulary isn’t the same as a spoken vocabulary but being surrounded by a rich environment of language is important. Churchill used a vast number of different words.

Using social media and engaging in dialogue is different from being a passive observer. Responding to twitter users means we have to develop our own language skills.

A simple hashtag game might not be to everyone’s liking, but to play you do need mental dexterity a good vocabulary and an understanding of culture. On message boards, I’ve come across a lot of pedantry when it comes to language and it also teaches you a lot about argument, even if you’re discussing football. A clear, concise argument using good grammar will be more persuasive than a poorly worded answer. It will also prevent a quick putdown purely based on the poor grammar.

Equally, if I’m putting together an argument, I can search for pithy quotes in seconds.

The evolution of language

I doubt Ben Kingsley tends to speak in iambic pentameter all the time. Even Shakespeare understood that you could change mood, impart meaning and change the dynamic of a play by breaking structure. Just look at a play like Anthony and Cleopatra where grand speeches use rhyming couplets while private conversations use coarse and common language. Equally Shakespeare would not have recognised the words or spoken like Chaucer.

We no longer speak like those in the 1940s, but neither did the Victorians. That’s the genius in the Armstrong and Miller Airmen sketches. They use the homophonic similarities of the 1940s and youth speech to juxtapose the difference in attitudes. If you look at American English, it is rooted in the past and actually has an older form of English at its heart. Which is more correct? Whatever you say, I’ll never say the word ‘gotten’.

Equally, language evolves through fashion, the need for terminology and use. Watch the Monkees TV programme of the 60s and see if the fashionable language there is still in use. I remember a cartoon called Rude Dog and the Dweebs- who uses those terms now (NB Dog referred to a canine and isn’t the same as calling someone a ‘Dwag’).

Shakespeare is one of the great innovators in language and you can’t critise the modern generation for changing the language and praise the dramatic greats in the same breath. You might tar computer users with the LOL generation of talking by writing GR8 rather than great, but even that language is functional. Although there are certainly people who will write in that way, many use the longer forms in tweets or text because they prefer to, reducing only when they see little option.

To sum up

There are issues with the use of technology and the written and spoken language. Some of these are related to schooling. But to denounce technology is to deny the future and ignore their potential. Ben Kingsley’s comments come across as cheap and from someone who does not engage with technology in way that many now do. The last five years have seen massive advancements in communication technology and to consign these changes as not important doesn’t help his own cause. It makes his argument weak, high brow and non-exclusive. To win, he needs to make people listen by engaging with the very people he feels aren’t living up to his expectations.

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