x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Angst over our ever-changing language and how it's delivered

We have a particular kind of English that we use in tweets, in the same way that our grandparents had a particular kind of English that they used in their telegrams

Language, or rather the proper use of it, inspires strong feelings. In a recent radio interview, Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, explained why his choice of one particular word had driven a man to send him hate mail.

"People have strong opinions on what is the correct form when it comes to irregular verbs," he said. "I use ... 'snuck' as the past tense of 'sneak' and I don't think that there is anything odd about it, but anyone older than me feels this is kind of slang or cutesy.

"But the language is changing," Pinker went on to say. "I think that, at least in America, the next generation is going to have no problem with 'snuck' whatsoever."

While the Harvard professor clearly understands the motives of his testy correspondent, his message is clear: change is irresistible. That's change, not progress, which is quite another matter.

This week, India bade a rather sentimental farewell to its 163-year-old telegram service and many subeditors took the opportunity to take a break from delivering bad news to have some fun. The headline in The National was typical: "Telegram services finish in India STOP End of era STOP".

Writers also seized upon the chance to recount some memorable stories, literally delivered by telegram thanks to its business model of charging customers by the word. Miscommunication was sometimes (possibly oftentimes) the result: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? one Hollywood reporter is meant to have asked the film actor by telegram. OLD CARY GRANT FINE STOP HOW YOU? was his response. Perhaps Grant took exception to a rather discourteous question asked discourteously. Telegrams need not be rude, as Roald Amundsen demonstrated when he sent this message to his rival in Antarctic exploration, Captain Robert Scott, in 1910: BEG LEAVE TO INFORM YOU PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC AMUNDSEN.

The similarities between the telegram and the modern forms of communication that have replaced it, have also been the subject of much comment. The general consensus being that messages sent in capital letters on paper slips and on a budget were more thoughtfully composed than today's emails, texts or tweets. Certainly, if I'd ever received a text message or Facebook update or "just off to use the loo" style tweet by telegram instead, I would have thought the sender mad, underemployed and stupidly rich.

The ubiquity of texts and tweets has caused a great amount of soul-searching, particularly among politicians, parents and English teachers who worry that children will start writing essays or exam questions in text-speak. Conclusions on the subject in academic research vary, with some praising texting for encouraging children to explore language and others citing a decline in grammar thanks to the frequent use of truncated language and omissions of punctuation.

It's not something that keeps Pinker awake at night. "That's nonsense, that kind of fear," he said. "Remember, 100 years ago, people were communicating with telegrams and they charged by the word so you had to leave out the prepositions and the articles and the little grammatical words but English did not lose its prepositions and articles as a result.

"So we have a particular kind of English that we use in tweets, in the same way that our grandparents had a particular kind of English that they used in their telegrams. Part of being a language user is commanding a number of different registers appropriate to the audience." I have been unable to find any reference to worries over telegram-speak a century or so ago.

But back to change and/or progress. That the telegraph system, which is reliant on thousands of kilometres of cables, can be switched off means that the internet, which spams us daily with emails, tweets and social media alerts, could also one day be turned off, the wires cut. And while that's not good news to me, it's probably heartening to the man who sends points of grammar to Pinker.

* Clare Dight