Friday, July 5, 2013

Language in Crisis?

Small segment of Bayeux Tapestry showing Norman French preparing to fight the Anglo-Saxon defenders of the realm.
One of the enduring strengths of the English language is its ability to adapt itself to new language environments. The language was wrought on the sharp edge of a Norman sword and the fine point of a French arrow in 1066 AD, when King Harold was cut down by William the Conqueror's men.

Anglo-Saxon, the language of the vanquished and rural working class, and French, the language of the victors and the ruling class, existed side-by-side until the Norman lads started to intermarry with Anglo-Saxon girls. It could be said that in the beds of merry old England, the English language was born.

Ancient Anglo-Saxon Epic
Eventually, four hundred years or so later, English evolved into a word order language with a simple Germanic syntax and a greatly enriched Latin based vocabulary. This mongrel language was destined to dominate the complicated inflectional language of the French aristocracy and emerge as Britain's mother tongue.

English was spread throughout the globe by the British Empire. Recognizable varieties of English are spoken in Australia, India, Canada, South Africa, and in the United States. 

More of the world's residents study English as a second language than any other language because of its global importance in science and technology, air traffic control, finance, trade, commerce, and of course, pop culture.

But English, as with all of the world's other languages, is undergoing a dramatic paradigm shift from how language is traditionally used and represented in the age of print and how it is evolving in the digital age of hand held computing and text messaging. 

Not since the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg has technology impacted the way people communicate and interact with others. The vox populae (voice of the people) would finally be heard.

Notice the cabinet for upper case and lower case letters at the left.


For over six-hundred years, the mechanically printed word on paper has been the Holy Grail of written thought. The imprisonment of ideas in ink on the page made the modern world possible. 

The ignorant masses were learning to read. Now, public opinion could be influenced and pamphleteering became the new avenue of political and religious thought. Radical ideas and heresies could be spread on an unprecedented rate. The ruling elite began to worry.

Gutenberg Bible Illuminated Manuscript Detail
In some circles, the printing press was deemed an implement of the devil. But in a stroke of marketing genius, Gutenberg chose the Mazarin Bible in 1455 AD as the very first book printed and mass produced on his new invention, and the Church gave him its blessing.

With the invention on the microprocessor in 1975, the personal computer made home computing a reality for millions of people in the 1980s. Countless advancements have been made since those early days. 

The ability to reach out to the world rests literally in the palms of our hands. Movies, television, music, internet, email, shopping, the time and the weather are all at our finger tips twenty-four hours a day.

The characteristic posture of a twenty-first century human seems to be a person hunched over a Smartphone peering into a two by four inch screen, tapping out a clipped message with his or her opposable thumbs.

A popular view held by many people is that writing and reading aren't as valued in our visually attuned and post literate society as they once were. The culture of paper has given way to the digital world.

The paperless workplace is a corporate ideal and books may soon become relics if some people have their way. How close to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 nightmare vision of a bookless world have we come as a culture?

True! Icons and symbols comprise many of the messages we interpret everyday, and they take us back to a pictographic level of clipped, symbolic expression. The very beginnings of written language were symbolic cave paintings. Today, we use apps on our personal electronics to help us navigate the net with the touch of a finger.

Steve Jobs with i-Pad

Many people these days show their joy or grief with emoticons or simple abbreviations which have a whole lexicon and iconography of their own. The age of the love and the Dear John letter is all but a memory.

With today's electronic tablets and smart phones, virtually everyone has a window on the world in their hands. In many ways, as global communications improve, the world seems to get smaller. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is debatable. 

The curious thing I notice about this brave new world of hand held computing is that it tends to isolate people socially. Many people are closer and more responsive to their virtual friends, than they are to the people around them. 

And I myself feel drawn by the cold embrace of my computer if I'm away from it for any length of time. I know of a person who sleeps with her i-Phone next to her pillow. I kid you not!

Lately, I've noticed families or young people out to dinner at some restaurant, and everyone is engaged in text messaging, shopping, watching video, or gaming rather than interacting with each other.

I know this is anecdotal evidence, but have you noticed this too? If not, you may be drawn into the hypnotic stare of the one-eyed looking glass and be too self-absorbed to notice.


Enjoy this Academy Award winning animation on the wonder of books: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: