Language as a blunt tool of the digital age

On a dance floor in a plaza of this many-hued Caribbean city, Cartagena in Colombia, salsa was oozing from vast speakers. Latin feet were shuffling. Voices were singing along in impassioned Spanish.

And then came a song that electrified the mostly Colombian crowd as few songs had. It was ‘I Gotta Feeling’, by the Black Eyed Peas, which electrifies my generation wherever they live in the world. When historians of culture look back at this wave of globalisation, the song’s lyrics may be of use.

They repeat the hope “that tonight’s gonna be a good night” over and over and over. There is little elaboration. And yet, as global anthems go, this is lyrically ambitious. The music that links the global young today is one of thumps and beeps, sounding to older music lovers like a room full of malfunctioning computers.

This is not the only way in which words seem to matter ever less to my generation, and not the only way in which this desertion may be the bitter price of a good thing: a world that talks to itself more easily than ever, by taking the art of talking less seriously.
We are all linguistic utilitarians now. At work and home, in person and on our devices, function rules and form pales. Capitalisation, commas, full sentences, the writing of words without numbers in them, the avoidance of jargon and mixed metaphors — these norms are suffering, unable to persuade multitaskers of their worth.

Of course, anxiety about language is very old. When technologies turn, when new social groups rise, when politics change, critics predict the end of literacy. George Orwell, in a seminal essay in 1946, warned that pretentious diction and meaningless words and other bad habits were corroding politics. He criticised the belief “that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light”.

Ideological misuse
Orwell, writing during the Cold War, was especially worried about the ideological misuse of language. In our own day, the threat would seem to come instead from a new trinity of technology, globalisation and business, which seem to exert a pragmatic pressure on language, to undermine the idea of language as an end in itself.

Technology is changing how we read, write and reason, as a growing number of critics suggest. Television has long been accused of making us stupid, but now the internet, though overflowing with text, is also blamed. In an essay in ‘The Atlantic’ last year, the technology writer Nicholas Carr argued that the power-skimming, link-hopping and window-toggling that define the internet experience have eroded the old practice of reading unbroken stretches of prose, with grave implications for our writing.

E-mail, meanwhile, has become a linguistic wasteland — even among language lovers. Cellphone keypads make us promise to “call u back after the mtg”. Twitter coaxes us to misspell to meet the 140-character maximum. Blogs, though they seek to bring out the writer in us, are notable for how little stress they put on the actual writing. How many literary greats has the rise of the blogosphere produced?

Globalisation, in bringing cultures together, exerts its own pragmatic pressure. With English the escalator of globalised success, the language’s centre of gravity is tilting away from English-speaking lands. A stripped-down English of catchphrases and trite idioms, light on richness, is becoming the true global language.

The English-learning boom in developing nations also corrodes their own languages. Their young increasingly learn enough English to do a global-economy job but not so much as to be articulate in it. Yet many give up on mastering their native languages. They end up, as the Indian writer Pavan Varma has called them, “linguistic half-castes”, functional in many tongues, without command of any.

A further abuser of language is business, with its growing influence over how many of us talk and think. Orwell worried about authoritarian treatment of language — about warmongers’ calling bombardment ‘pacification’, for example. But, with totalitarianism in retreat, it is business that conquers by word-twisting and euphemism.

When a company is ‘levering up’, it often means, in regular language, that it is spending money it doesn’t have. When it is ‘right-sizing’ or finding ‘synergies’, it may well be firing people. When it ‘manages stakeholders’, it could be lobbying or bribing. When you dial into ‘customer care’, they care very little. But when they call you, even at dinnertime, then it’s a ‘courtesy call’.

It is tempting to conclude, as Orwell did, that language is dying. But language, like culture, is a dynamic thing. It was an oral thing once, then became a printed thing and is becoming a digital thing, infinitely reproducible, infinitely disseminable. As such, we are not abandoning language so much as reimagining it.

Increasingly, we treat language as computers do, as a protocol: a code that machines use to communicate with other machines, a code that is not savoured or loved, a code that exists to get the job done and works precisely because it is boring, standardised and pragmatic.

In the language-as-protocol worldview, the best lyrics are the least lyrical, because the greatest number can follow them. The most successful headlines are not those with the freshest word choices but those whose well-worn expressions are frequently Googled. The most effective communication at work is not the bulky memo, but the bullet-riddled PowerPoint presentation, which people from varied nationalities can absorb in very little time.

A linguistically utilitarian world may be, for billions who don’t speak English, an easier world in which to prosper; a world that breeds less resentment among those without a gift for words; a world in which technical inventions flow more easily among nations; a world in which the intrinsic thrill of language is slowly, tragically forgotten, but not because of the evil rulers that George Orwell feared.

Language may suffer in the coming age simply because we have so many people, near and far, to address, so little time in which to do so, and diminishing patience for rules that slow the headlong rush into linguistic limbo.

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