I think Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster would approve of Twitterese and online language in general. Both were enthusiastic proponents of a flexible language and believed that words, when written, should look the way they sound. I doubt that either man would be moaning about internet-fostered illiteracy and young people who prefer phonetics (ur) to standard words (your).
The greatest strength of the English language, especially the variety spoken in the U.S., has always been its elasticity. English readily absorbs useful foreign words, sometimes changing the pronunciation and spelling. Old words acquire new meanings, and every year we create and rapidly begin to use words that never existed before. At the same time, English is a hodgepodge of archaic spellings, some with more than one definition and a different pronunciation for each definition.
Benjamin Franklin recognized the problem as early as 1768, when he published “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling.” He proposed several new vowels and wanted to abolish some troublesome consonants. His views didn’t have much impact on practices, though.
Noah Webster shared Franklin’s views, and he was in an ideal position to take direct action: he
|That wild and crazy guy, Noah Webster|
Standardized spelling, however, is an obstacle to innovation. Since the printing press was invented in the 1440s, language conservatives have been trying to make us toe the line and ignore the allure of simplification and clarity in spelling. Even as we continually add new words to the language, many of them spawned by the technology industry and communications media, publishers demand standardized spelling and adherence to “house style” and writers run spell-check and comb through their manuscripts for slip-ups. Nothing, we’re told, will make a worse impression on an editor or agent than a misspelled word. Use “threw” when you should have used “through” and you’re toast.
But the people are the ones who shape their language, and in this time of rapid change English can't remain static. In the current issue of Wired magazine, writer and Oberlin College associate professor Anne Trubek states, “Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling.” Note that she uses past tense in referring to the print era.
I’m all for letting the language evolve on the street and the internet, in everyday use. Why should we let scholars who are heavily invested in the past and staid tradition restrict the flexibility that has always been the hallmark, the inherent value, and the greatest charm of English?
What do you think?