Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Puritanical linguists have been deriding the growing SMS culture for killing the grammar and syntax that are the essential ingredients of a conversation. They watch in horror as scores of youngsters message each other in text that would make a grammarian squirm. "C U TOM 4 LNCH," is supposedly meant to say, "See you tomorrow for lunch." So pervasive has this culture of instant messaging become that we were recently witness to an SMS-ized version of one of Shakespeare's most well-known lines: "2 B OR NOT 2 B." Need one translate that?

So, what is happening to language as we know it? Is the mass media, which has insidiously taken over every sphere of our waking lives (and sleeping too, if you consider technicolor dreams in surround sound), sounding the death knell of written and spoken communication? How seriously should we take assertions of language losing its importance in the 21st century?

Relax, it's not that bad. Every new technological innovation is shot down by luddites who bemoan the changing rules of the game. This is not to suggest that every linguistic alarmist is a dinosaur from the ancient past, but we need to understand that equating changing mores with the death of language would be, to say the least, extreme.

When the internet first came around, it was feared that the penetrating tentacles of the World Wide Web would finish off the publishing industry. Who would want to buy books, cynics pointed out, when one could simply log on and read off the Net? But twenty years after its genesis, the Web has proved these fears were unfounded.

For one, copyright laws ensure that very few books are actually available online. Sure, you can catch a Woolf or a Lawrence on the Web, but you don’t stand a chance with Rushdie or Coetzee. Secondly, how many people do you know who actually like to read online? I, for one, hate it; simple detest it. There is no greater pleasure than reading a hard-bound Alan Hollinghurst, its pages wafting that rich aroma that only freshly published books give, a cup of coffee nestled on the study. Who in the world wants to read off an unromantic screen blinking databytes at your increasingly sprained neck? Count me out, for sure.

If anything, new technologies have engendered a revival in the book trade. The success of Amazon attests to the growing demand for books worldwide. The new age tool of blogging has further ensured that bibliophiles stay connected in a community which is vocally exhibiting its passion for literature. Interest in subaltern and postmodernist studies has guaranteed that a worldwide network is coming into place, nudged by the rise in new technologies.

That said, it is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Standards of language have been declining over the past decade, not just in India, but across the English speaking world. If America is exporting nuclear power and free trade abroad, its influence is also assuring that one is as likely to hear, "Wassup, dude?" on the streets of Delhi as one will in the alleys of Boston. Changing times call for a less didactical approach to teaching English in classrooms. Instructors need to keep their ear to the ground and devise innovative techniques to instill a love of the language among students. They need to plug the richness of classical texts and the contemporaneity of modern ones to enable young adults to look at language not just as a conversational tool, but as a template to reach a deeper understanding of life. Only then can they contribute their bit to the survival of language.

The new century calls for looking at language differently. The global preponderance of English has invoked an unfortunate decline in the relevance of regional languages. While this may be an irreversible phenomenon, publishing houses need to gird up their loins and ensure that more translations make it to the market. India boasts a rich tradition of regional literature that is waiting to be tapped. Publishing house Katha is already doing yeoman's work in this field. Others need to follow suit. Not only will it bring about more writing in regional languages, it will also introduce English readers to a whole new world of wonder and joy.

So apocalypse hunters, chill out! Language is a unique gift to humans. A civilizational necessity, it might be tweaked, altered, juggled, thrown around, played with, mutilated, but those very acts also ensure that it can never go out of fashion. And if you are still brooding the prostituting of the Bard's famous lines, don't! It might just get some lazy teenagers to pick up Hamlet.

1 comment:

Peter said...

"Chill out" is an appropriate injunction to those uptight about linguistic matters. SMS-"speak" is a perfectly rational response to the demands of typing on tiny, uncomfortable keyboards. When it comes to more formal prose, though, I stand with the puritans. There, SMS-style spelling has no place.

I suspect that such spelling in more formal prose is like platform shoes: a weird eccentricity that will pass out of fashion.

The havoc SMS wreaks is with spelling, not grammar and syntax, by the way. "C U TOM 4 LNCH" makes me wince, but its grammar and syntax are impeccable and perfectly standard, just as the most puritanical linguist would like it.


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