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Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary
July 10, 2008

By 1848, the new electric telegraph was already being hailed as a modern marvel that would revolutionize commerce, journalism, and warfare. And in that year, a prominent New York attorney and editor named Conrad Swackhamer wrote an article predicting that it would transform the language, as well. After all, he noted, the telegraph required above all else that its users be brief and direct. As people got used to sending and receiving telegrams and reading the telegraphed dispatches in the newspapers, they would inevitably cast off the verbosity and complexity of the prevalent English style. The "telegraphic style," as Swackhamer called it, would be, "terse, condensed, expressive, sparing of expletives, and utterly ignorant of synonyms," and would propel the English language toward a new standard of perfection. 

That was the first time anybody used the word "telegraphic" to describe a style of writing, with the implication that a new communications technology would naturally leave its mark on the language itself.[1] It's an idea that has resurfaced with the appearance of every writing tool from the typewriter to the word-processor. And now there's a resurgence of Swackhamerism as the keypad is passed to a new generation, and commentators ponder the deeper linguistic significance of the codes and shortcuts that have evolved around instant messaging and cell-phone texting.

The topic got a lot of media play last month with the release of a study on teens and writing technology sponsored by the College Board and the Pew Research Center. According to the report, more than a half of teens say they've sometimes used texting shortcuts in their school writing. The story was a natural for journalists. It combined three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: "the language is going to hell in a handbasket"; "you'll never get me onto one of those newfangled things"; and "kids today, I'm here to tell you."

It wasn't hard to find critics who warned of apocalyptic consequences for the language. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said that IM and texting were bringing about "the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence." And the enthusiasts of the new media countered with equally momentous predictions. According to Richard Sterling of the National Commission on Writing, IM and texting will naturally erode the conventions of formal writing -- within a few decades we probably won't be capitalizing the first words of sentences anymore, but it's "not a worrying issue." In response to that prediction, the Boston Globe published an editorial called "the revenge of e. e. cummings" that had no capital letters and was laced with LOL's and texting abbreviations. It had me wondering which is more embarrassing, hearing old people use teenage slang or hearing them make fun of it.

I've got a little prediction to make myself: a generation from now all this stuff is going to sound awfully silly. Did people really imagine that rules of written English sentence structure that go back to the Renaissance would suddenly crumble because teenagers took to texting each other over their cell phones instead of passing notes under their desks in class?

The fact is that apart from contributing some slang and jargon, new writing technologies rarely have much of an effect on the language. They can give rise to specialized codes, but those tend to flow alongside the broad channel of standard English without ever mixing with it. As Conrad Swackhamer predicted, the Victorians developed a breathlessly compressed style for sending telegrams, like the message Henry James had one of his characters cable in Portrait of a Lady: "Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin." But that telegraphic style didn't leave many traces on Victorian prose -- when you think of James's own writing, "terse" and "condensed" are not the words that come to mind.[2]

The linguistic features of the new media are sure to follow the same pattern. Take emoticons. Used sparingly, they can delicately shade the reception of an email -- my dean at Berkeley is a master of the deft smiley that turneth away wrath. But it will be a cold day at the copy desk before you encounter a smiley in the pages of The Economist or the New York Review of Books. What happens in email, stays in email.

Kids catch on to this quickly. They may sometimes let texting shortcuts slip into their schoolwork, but they know there are different rules for formal writing, and that you ignore them at your peril. The people at the College Board report they almost never see students using the shortcuts in their SAT essays -- I mean, how dumb would that be?

In fact that Pew study reported that a majority of the kids who use IM and texting don't consider them to be real "writing" at all. And if you think of writing as an intellectual exercise, they're probably right. You're not going to learn a lot about organizing ideas from punching in text messages against a 160-character limit.

But there's another, more basic idea of writing, as the process of turning mental activity into automatic manual gestures. And in that sense the new technologies do make a difference. As the telegraph first demonstrated, the wonder of modern writing tools is how they can accelerate that process until it seems almost instantaneous -- they turn writing into the cognitive equivalent of a twitch game like Pac Man or Tetris. The difference is that in the old days you had to go and engage somebody to tap out your thoughts for you with his index finger. Now we can do that with our own thumbs from wherever we happen to be.

1. The OED gives its first citation for this sense from 1896, which is clearly much too late. Return

2. That isn't to say that the telegraph didn't have an important influence on James's fiction, but only that it wasn't immediately evident in his style. See Richard Menke's "Telegraphic Realism: Henry James's 'In the Cage,'" PMLA, 2000.

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.