Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Getting the thumb out

There's a nice quick summary of the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide (if it's a divide at all) over to the Language Log today, though casual visitors might be forgiven if they're more diverted by the ensuing argument about what is and isn't appropriate for language people to say about themselves and each other.

That's all good sport, but the original source of the debate risks going overlooked, so it's worth a short visit here: Louis Menand's review, in the Monday-dated New Yorker, of David Crystal's "Txting: The Gr8 Db8." I'm looking forward to the book; Crystal's an engaging writer and scholar who can marshal a great deal of information without talking down to the lay reader -- me -- or making the said reader feel any dumber than usual. And the review helps, if only because the sort of uninformed petulance it displays often suggests a really good point that the reviewer decided not to get.

That's not to suggest that Menand is an incapable critic, or that reviewers should be barred from reviewing any book whose author has more degrees in the topic than they do. The problem is that he's committing the old academic sin of answering the question he wants to, rather than the one that's on the table. He doesn't address the book's evidence and arguments directly; he uses them to string together a bunch of assertions of his own (often with nonexistent or nonsensical support) about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I'm not saying that Louis Menand shouldn't review popular books by scholars -- just that he shouldn't sound like Sarah Palin while he's doing it.

Thus, I'm less worried about Menand's generalization about linguists than about the argument that follows it:

So his [Crystal's] conclusions are predictable: texting is not corrupting the language; people who send text messages that use emoticons, initialisms (“g2g,” “lol”), and other shorthands generally know how to spell perfectly well; and the history of language is filled with analogous examples of nonstandard usage. It is good to know that the estimated three billion human beings who own cell phones, and who use them to send more than a trillion text messages every year, are having no effect on anything that we should care about.

That's campaign-level demagoguery, getting "no effect on anything that we should care about" from the conclusions reported in the first sentence. Let me suggest a couple areas we should care about a great deal that have already been affected by texting* or will be soon: disaster communication and democratic transitions, particularly the "color revolution" variety. I'd like to think David Crystal would agree (if anybody wants to use their** secret decoder ring and summon him, he can probably find the "comments" button on his own). And it's also possible that he cares a lot about things that allegedly "corrupt" the language but has concluded that the evidence is overwhelmingly against any such effect of texting -- or any other language technology dating back to the invention of the handbasket. Menand's too busy setting up a straw man to tell us.

The texting function of the cell phone ought to have been the special province of the kind of people who figure out how to use the television remote to turn on the toaster: it’s a huge amount of trouble relative to the results.

Yes, until somebody figures out how to put a "toaster" button on the remote, for about 1.9 cents in added cost. At which point making toast is about as much trouble as turning on the TV.

In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication.

It's hard to think of some way in which this sentence isn't complete nonsense. The "science of communication"*** actually likes it when people communicate, because it gives us something to do when we aren't destroying the fabric of the American family! Perhaps the author means "the interaction of laypeople and communication technology"? Let's see:

It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses.

Semaphore is pretty efficient, if you have a clear line of sight and two semaphore-speakers. (And if I recall it correctly, there's a txt-like smphr moment in one of the Hornblower novels: using the signal for "lee" to shorten "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea.") Morse is efficient, as long as the sender and receiver both have access to a Morse-speaker and the wire's up -- and, critically, both are somewhere near a telegraph head. The telegraph made news of fighting in Latin America go at the speed of light -- as soon as the boat got to New Orleans, until which it went at the speed of horse and boat. Menand doesn't mention the Telex, which is far more efficient than Morse because you don't have to know any code. I wonder if that's because all the ways in which Telexing corrupted the language (the resignation-by-Telex from Saigon in Caputo's DelCorso's Gallery: "Upshove job assward") have become part of folklore. But that's a digression: We (well, I) still don't know how many keystrokes it takes to txt an "s." Canst advise asapest tks rgds fev.

Sending a text message with a numeric keypad feels primitive and improvisational—like the way prisoners speak to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in “Darkness at Noon,” or the way the guy in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” writes a book.

Sorry, but from a "science of communication" perspective, that's just dumb. How txting "feels" to some guy at the New Yorker has no relation -- none, zed, zero -- to the way it feels to people who actually use it to communicate. If people are really doing something a trillion times a year, it seems a fair bet that it's beyond "improvisational" for many of them (where "primitive" comes into this, I don't know; it looks as if it was just thrown in ad hominem). And there's a bizarre sort of originalist assumption here -- echoed later, when Menand invokes the qwerty keyboard as if it had been handed down along with the Commandments -- that one arbitrary set of movements producing a message is better than another arbitrary set of movements producing the same message. It's sort of like a sax player scoffing at a banjo as a primitive way of making notes.

And, as Crystal points out, although cell phones keep getting smaller, thumbs do not.

Uh ... long-scale bass, GREAT BIG SPACE between nut and first fret. Mandolin, littletinyspace. Funny, people seem to be able to play them both.

But the technical arguments run out pretty fast, so like a Team o'Mavericks flailing around for a message that sticks, we're gonna head for the Culture Wars. These arguments range from empirical statements without evidence:

But the lists also suggest that texting has accelerated a tendency toward the Englishing of world languages.

... The most common text message must be “k.” (Wonder what the most common marker of assent in speech "must" be.)

... to apocalyptic driver-ed moments:

It was reported that the engineer in the fatal Los Angeles commuter-train crash this fall was texting seconds before the accident occurred. The Times noted recently that four of ten teen-agers claim that they can text blindfolded. As long as they don’t think that they can drive blindfolded. (Unfortunately -- speaking as a former teenager here -- they do. Or, at least, that they can drive while talking over their shoulder.)

... to dire speculative warnings about the sort of havoc that's going on while ... d00d, wait, what?

So texting has probably done some damage to the planet’s cultural ecology, to lingo-diversity. People are better able to communicate across national borders, but at some cost to variation.

Those are questions I'd take to somebody who studies stuff like variation and Englishing and "lingo-diversity" -- you know, a what-do-you-call-'em, a linguist or something? But Menand seems to have adopted a core journalistic habit here: Experts don't really know what they're saying and can't be trusted to get it right anyway. When you've got a theme going on, why mess it up with data?

All right, all right. Is that even an editing issue? In that reviews ought to talk about the topic at hand, rather than the reviewer's peeves, sure. Meanwhile, it's back to work here.

* I'm using this as a shorthand for "lots of interpersonal or interactive portable wireless technology that isn't very well studied or understood yet." YFMMV.
** "His or her," if you're getting ready for the Dow Jones test.
*** This is one of the things we do up there on the fifth floor, in case you were wondering. Rly!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are using the standard numeric-keypad-alpha-entry kluge, entering "s" takes four presses of the "7" button -- that is, assuming that, for whatever reason, the auto-completion feature was not able to operate. (Otherwise it might not take any keypresses at all.)

1:05 AM, October 23, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

But it's a ridiculous argument, because many letters take fewer presses on the numeric keypad than in Morse code.

I honor Menand's savaging of Lynne Truss, but even there he went way off track - just, I admit, in a direction I agreed with...

5:42 AM, October 23, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Yeah, four keystrokes -- imagine what that symphony would have sounded like if Beethoven had left the autocomplete on.

I should have noted, of course, that Morse doesn't require a wire and actually does quite well in a wireless environment. But the underlying point is the same: counting keystrokes doesn't say much, if anything, useful about the message. ZOMG IZBRG RT AHEAD wouldn't have saved the Titanic, but you can't reasonably argue that it would have made things worse.

12:49 AM, October 24, 2008  

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