On Twitter and Language
Ralph Fiennes asks, “Is Shakespeare relevant,” in an age of tweets and texts. In response to Fiennes-as-Luddite, E.D. Kain launches into a virulent defense of new technology and language’s continuing evolution. However, I think Kain misses something.
“‘You only have to look on Twitter to see evidence of the fact that a lot of English words that are used say in Shakespeare’s plays or PG Wodehouse novels — both of them avid inventors of new words — are so little used that people don’t even know what they mean now.’
‘This could be viewed as regrettable, as there are some great descriptive words that are being lost and these words would make our everyday language much more colourful and fun if we were to use them.’
‘But it’s only natural that with people trying to fit as much information in 140 characters that words are getting shortened and are even becoming redundant as a result.’”
“Blaming technology or forms of communication for the breakdown of the English language is always fashionable in every era. But the fact is that many people who use Twitter are avid readers, writers, and journalists. Many are professors, novelists, and people who devour news and long-form journalism. Then they spread the knowledge they’ve acquired rapidly through Twitter. What Fiennes perhaps does not understand is that Twitter isn’t designed to replace the novel, it’s designed to promote the novel.
As we democratize language and literacy we have to resist the temptation to see in its evolution a sort of breakdown or moral failure simply because not everyone speaks or writes as well as the Bard or as Ralph Fiennes. Language is full of creative destruction, with or without 140 character limits.”
The link between Twitter and the degradation of our language might not be as clear and direct as Fiennes would like, but the trend over thousands of years is hard to dismiss. Today’s forms of communication aren’t just new or different, they’re part of an underlying shift toward quicker, shorter, more readily forgotten interactions.
Kain points out that Twitter isn’t meant to replace the novel, but to promote it. But the novel itself is a relatively recent development in Western communication. Prior to the printing press, texts were copied by hand, and before that, knowledge was communicated through oral traditions, poems, and dramas.
So there’s the Iliad, then the Bible, and finally the first novel. First, information and knowledge were shaped slowly from generation to generation. Later, oral tradition gave way to silent reading as the book became the predominant from, and then you jump ahead to the explosion of the novel with the printing press.
This leads to newspapers and pamphlets which deliver information in smaller chunks with less context and a shorter half-life. Television eventually comes along and later the Internet and you’re finally in the hyper-speed machinery of 21st century communication.
It’s not that Twitter is just another form of communication, it’s one more on a clear path toward a flighty, un-focused, and distraction-ridden media landscape where conversations consist of smaller and smaller bits, last for shorter and shorter lengths of time, and become obsolete within months, weeks, or even minutes after they take place.
This begs the question of whether, “Language is full of creative destruction, with without 140 character limits.” Sure, there is more being created and destroyed per second on Twitter than probably any other communication platform. The makers of Twitter even came up with ways to measure this phenomenon. And yet, the TPS of a given topic doesn’t tell us anything meaningful about it. Creative destruction is usually a good thing, but when neither what’s created nor what’s destroyed is of significant value, it’s hard to see how the outcome is anything other than a time-sink. But hey, who cares? It’s trending!
In the end, there’s no reason why the novel, because it’s longer and bound between nostalgia inducing backboards, must be better than anything that can come from musings on Twitter. But forms of mass communication are comparable and one inevitably displaces the other. The novels people read now are cinematic and draw from the moving image. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that non-fiction writers like Thomas Friedman exemplify the twitt-ificaton of long form journalism. Friedman is the modern day de Tocqueville but with a much wider audience. And yet he builds most of his insights around non-sequitous one-liners inspired by humble particulars like the glare of a McDonald’s sign.
But though Friedman might be the 21st century analogue to de Tocqueville, The World is Flat is hardly comparable to Democracy in America. Though both aim at sociological significance, they draw from fundamentally different epistemologies. And it’s the epistemology of Twitter that has the potential to change our language and thought.