“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from a loss so overwhelming,” Abraham Lincoln had written to Mrs. Lidia Bixby of Boston, the mother of two sons who fell during the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they so died to save.”
Lincoln was writing during a time when the postal service of North America relied on a continental system of railroads, which then had a total mileage of roughly 35,000 miles. The civil war was giving impetus to great technological innovations, and decades old technologies were undergoing massive improvements, but it is likely that it took Lincoln’s letter weeks to arrive at Mrs.Bixby’s doorstep.
Communications in real-time
Today, most correspondences and long distance human interaction are conducted in real-time. We have VOIP services offerred by RingCentral, chatrooms, e-mail, virtual worlds and the worldwide web. The click of a mouse will send ideas and sentiments careening accross oceans and continents in nanoseconds.
Language, too, has evolved — and its has done so with equally astonishing speed. Not too long ago, telling a housewife you just met that you intend to “google” her might have easily earned you a slap on the face. The phrase “click of a mouse” would have sent the same housewife scampering for a nearby broom.
A corrupting force?
Because language has always been an important part of the process by which human beings arrive at some concept of themselves, the “cyberspeak” of our electronic discourse provides a unique window into the character of our times. Looking through that same window, however, many language educators and linguists are understandably aghast.
Cyberspeak, some have claimed, holds the potential to corrupt the conventions of formal written language. They point to — among others — the vigorous use of abbreviations and acronyms as a particularly heinous transgression.
In most forms of real-time electronic discourse, just about everything is abbreviated — and the vernacular acronyms of the chatroom very quickly become the accepted global convention. General Douglas MacArthur, along with vast regiments of furious English teachers, will probably frown at the fact that “I shall return” has given way to “BRB” and “CUL8R.” The rebellious teenager is nonethless likely to respond to their frustration with a nonchalant, “RTFM.”
Symbols, too, have come to claim an increasing portion of written text, although this is not without formal precedent. Poets and linguists alike will tell you that written language has always held logographic properties. The poet, Jorge Luis Borges, in fact famously asserts that each word is an icon, a symbol — and that the languages with which we communicate with each other today are actually vocabularies of shared memory. But one now wonders how Borges would have reacted to the discovery that, in any number of internet fora these days, it is considered perfectly acceptable to punctuate our agreement to his assertion with something like C.
From error to improved errors
Can we say that the language now evolving in cyberspace is a refinement over — say — the English of Shakespeare? Perhaps not in the ways your English teacher would like. But those of us who remember that English itself began as a pidgin language — a consequence of the discourse between the ancient Anglic tribes of the British Isles and various Germanic invaders — are not too worried.
The process of evolution in language and written correspondence implies constant transformation as it moves, as Saul Bellow would say, from one error to a multitude of improved errors. That is just how it is. And so as long as the mind that soaks in acronyms like “IMHO” and “HAK” is equally capable of absorbing Shakespeare, Yeats and, yes, even the elegant letters of Mr. Lincoln, there is no real cause for alarm.
English, as always, will be fine. J
Henry Conrad is a 29-year-old game developer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aside from gaming and being a tech junky, he also dabbles in creative writing, which allows him to create great storylines and backgrounds for his characters. . Follow me on Twitter and join me in Google +