Is the internet "dumbing down" language?
January 14, 2007 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Help me find evidence contrary to this analysis that claims the internet causes language to be "dumbed down". As Hemingway said: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
posted by Acey to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
well I don't know about evidence and I certainly am not going to be able to read that, but common sense says it's nothing but empty academic griping at the latest trendy bogeyman: first it was TV, then video games, now the internet.

Just off the top of my head, I would say widespread use of email means that written communication is more important now than at any time since the age of letter writing. As for dumbing down: language changes, but who's to say whats for better and whats for worse? The "dumbing" is entirely in the eye of the cranky old out-of-touch academic. Arguments like this tend to boil down to ""the old way I'm used to is good; the new way the kids use is bad; because I say so and I can beat you into submission with 40 pages of empty academic-speak."

and stuff like this is just comical:
and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days and destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries

"hyperspace freaks!" As the illiterate kids say nowadays, LOLLERSKATES!!!!11!11
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:26 AM on January 14, 2007


I don't have any counter-arguments, but I don't get how anyone could seriously make such a claim and think they have logic on their side.

First of all, IF language has been dumbed down -- even if the dumbing-down coincided with the web becoming popular -- how could we possibly know that the web was the CAUSE of the dumbing down? Language is a complex thing, and it's hooked into the rest of culture in astoundingly complex ways.

Assuming we could get past all that, how do we get accurate before/after language samples to test this claim?

Also, "the Internet" is not one thing. Is Metafilter dumbing down language? Is chat? Is email? Is YouTube?

And what constitutes a "dumbing down"? Bad grammar? Bad spelling? Passive voice?
posted by grumblebee at 11:27 AM on January 14, 2007


Thanks for the ideas :)
posted by Acey at 11:32 AM on January 14, 2007


Technology like the internet democratizes communication.

Say it's 200 years ago. People who know how to read and write are (pulling numbers out of my ass) 1% of the population. They mostly have classical educations, and they can read and write in Latin as well, and they've all read the same grammars. They maintain a privileged bubble of written communication, in which mistakes are less frequent because everybody in their world knows the rules. If you look ONLY at written communication, they seem to be much better at it. But if you consider how everybody communicated, the people who couldn't read and write knew less, spoke less "correctly," etc. than the people in a similar social class do today.

Fast-forward to now. Most people can read and write, so the average level of education amongst those using written communication has lowered, but simultaneously, the average level of education amongst the entire population has risen.

Does this mean language has been dumbed down? No. It means the elite is exposed to the rest of us.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:45 AM on January 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


The internet has done an interesting thing to written communication. It used to be that you had informal language and formal language in spoken language (e.g. how you talk when hanging out with your buddies at the bar vs. how you speak in an interview), but this difference did not occur to the same extent in written language. We simplify things in our spoken language all the time — didja, coulda, this 'n that, etc. — and this wasn't appropriate in written language. Part of this was probably because written language was not an immediate communication method, part of it could have been because it was restricted to the upper classes for a long time, part of it would certainly be due to the idea of "proper" written English. However, now that texting, instant messaging, emailing, etc., are commonplace, people are using shortcuts and not seeing it as formal simply because it's written down. This isn't a "dumbing down" of written language so much as it is an expansion of written language into other registers that were already there. Linguistically, it's absolutely fascinating.
posted by heatherann at 12:15 PM on January 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I would say that heatherann is on the mark; written language doesn't have the same barrier, or distance, between the thought and the completion on the internet. This makes it a little more like spoken language, I think.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 12:18 PM on January 14, 2007


I have read something countering it, but I don't remember where or when or even in what language. All I remember is that it had to do with MSN and teenagers who knew perfectly well how to spell, but purposely didn't do so on MSN or in text messaging. They were able to see it as a whole different way of writing, and it didn't interfere with their use of language in school assignments. I read it in a magazine or a newspaper, but it was an interview with a researcher (female, I believe) who did some actual serious work on this phenomenon.
Maybe that helps you search for it. Sorry, I don't remember any more details.
posted by easternblot at 12:23 PM on January 14, 2007


The internet has done an interesting thing to written communication. It used to be that you had informal language and formal language in spoken language (e.g. how you talk when hanging out with your buddies at the bar vs. how you speak in an interview), but this difference did not occur to the same extent in written language. We simplify things in our spoken language all the time — didja, coulda, this 'n that, etc. — and this wasn't appropriate in written language.

Totally speaking out of my arse here... but is that true? When my grandmother writes me notes on Christmas/Birthday cards they're full of abbreviations.

Furthermore, the Romans abbreviated everything in their inscriptions. Granted, there was a practical reason for this, but I have a hard time believing that those abbreviations didn't make it into their personal correspondence. I mean, isn't that how things like & and other ligatures came into existence?
posted by sbutler at 12:31 PM on January 14, 2007


I think there has been a general dumbing down which happens to coincide with, and may even have been helped by the Internet but was not caused by the Internet and this is not just because I have recently seen Idiocracy, though I think Judge is spot on.

grumblebee says Is Metafilter dumbing down language? and the answer is an unqualified yes. I remain astounded at the number of people who don't know the difference between it's and its, they're, there and their, etc. and who cannot spell weird, receive, definitely, etc. If it is like that on the blue and green, it is much worse on the rest of the Internets. The US has a president who is virtually functionally illiterate and no-one cares. Of all the people I know well, most of whom have a minimum of bachelor's and many a master's degree, with well-paid jobs, and a keen interest in the world, I cannot think of a single one who would rather read a "good" book (whatever that may be) than watch crap on TV, play a video game, mess around on the Internet (as I am now doing), download and listen to stuff on their I-Pod.

Birkerts is a very smart person and has written well on this but the late Neil Postman put the argument better in Amusing Ourselves Death when the Internet was barely more than a gleam in Al Gore's eye.

Of course, this could just be because I am an old fart and all old farts think it's getting worse.
posted by TheRaven at 12:59 PM on January 14, 2007


joannemerriam has a great point. For broad research purposes, there is plenty out there about the "myth" of illiteracy in this country-- Richard Allington talks about it (but not about the Internt specifically). The argument goes that, yes, there are issues with reading levels in this country, but when we say 50% of 4th graders cannot read, what is often the case is that 50% of 4th graders cannot read at a benchmark level-- they may read at 3rd grade 5 months.

The same gets said about writing-- the kids use text messaging shorthand in their writing assignments! I teach preservice teachers and this is a huge complaint. The simple answer is the same as it always has been-- teach registers or discourses (what heatherann is talking about) and where to use them-- IM language is ok in creative writing or online, but we use formalized English in formalized classroom activities. The big scary difference is that we are writing in registers now, where we weren't so much before.

But more specifically about writing-- the Pew Internet & American Life Project has lots of interesting things on this, and there is an article by Crispin Thurow that talks a bit about this.
posted by oflinkey at 1:06 PM on January 14, 2007


Although, on preview, Neil Postman is the b0/\/\B. He s the other side of this story.
posted by oflinkey at 1:08 PM on January 14, 2007


You could call this a counterargument, I suppose. Don't mess with Sali.
posted by greatgefilte at 1:17 PM on January 14, 2007


I don't really think that Birkerts essay's kind of lapsarian nostalgia is susceptible to refutation at all, since it's basically a feeling of loss, not an analysis of what might be changing nor an argument about it. The most effective refutation might not be to argue from facts about literacy today but rather to assemble a series of such pronouncements about past technologies and media, a task that wouldn't be all that difficult, and then simply allow their ridiculousness to become apparent.

All the same, there is at least one obvious counterpoint: the astonishing growth of online archives themselves – while Birkerts waxes melancholic about the alleged obsolescence of the great libraries, Google Books and various others are making more and more of the old print culture more widely available than it's ever been before. I can say from personal experience that the networked computer has vastly improved the research experience. My work recently led me to need to read a bunch of early-nineteenth-century American newspapers, and most were immediately available and fully text-searchable from ProQuest. Then I wanted to look briefly at a very, very obscure book from 1830 – available only in one or two university libraries across the Atlantic from me – and found it readily available from Google Books. Not only can the network be conducive to serious reading after all, then, but I'd say this kind of thing represents a net addition to the possibilities for serious readers: material that wouldn't ever have been available, or that would've taken significant effort to find, is now there for the asking. And, what's better, it's often fully searchable, allowing us to ask new kinds of questions (e.g. "where and how widely was this particular sentence quoted?") that would never have been possible thirty years ago.
posted by RogerB at 1:28 PM on January 14, 2007


grumblebee says Is Metafilter dumbing down language? and the answer is an unqualified yes. I remain astounded at the number of people who don't know the difference between it's and its, they're, there and their, etc. and who cannot spell weird, receive, definitely, etc.

Many people who write on the web don't write well. And I get that you're upset about it. But you're claiming that the web is CAUSING the bad writing.

Evidence?

I suspect joannemerriam is right. The web isn't making people into bad writers. It's just giving a platform to many writers you wouldn't have read before the web existed. And you're getting exposed to them.

Prior to "American Idol," most of us weren't exposed to as many bad singers. But it would be odd to claim that "American Idol" is making people sing worse.
posted by grumblebee at 2:10 PM on January 14, 2007


A superficially plausible argument that something has dumbed English down is easy to make: the population of Elizabethan England was less than 5 million; there are somewhere around 375 million native speakers of English alive right now.

Where are our seventy-five Shakespeares?
posted by jamjam at 4:00 PM on January 14, 2007


Actuallly I don't think it's the internet that's dumbing things down. I think it's school textbooks. A google for "dumbing down textbooks" will give you over 100,000 links, including a couple of book titles.
posted by ilsa at 4:21 PM on January 14, 2007


I recently read about some idiotic school district that is now accepting text messaging shorthand as correct spelling in assignments, tests, etc. There's an example of dumbing down if there ever was one. To me, that's just lunacy.

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posted by Gerard Sorme at 4:43 PM on January 14, 2007


I blame mollycoddling and/or incompetent teachers and social promotion.
posted by dhammond at 5:04 PM on January 14, 2007


I recently read about some idiotic school district that is now accepting text messaging shorthand as correct spelling in assignments, tests, etc. There's an example of dumbing down if there ever was one. To me, that's just lunacy.

Next thing you know, they'll drop compulsory Latin.

The sound argument here is that a massive upswing in the visibility of average-joe writing has led to a massive upswing in the visibility of bad writing. Conflating this with the constant, ongoing, gradual-with-spikes changes in language usage is silly.
posted by cortex at 6:06 PM on January 14, 2007


well I don't know about evidence and I certainly am not going to be able to read that, but common sense says it's nothing but empty academic griping at the latest trendy bogeyman: first it was TV, then video games, now the internet.

I suppose academia is occasionally tangentially involved, but it seems to me that popular culture writers and commentators of the Andy Rooney ilk are more likely to make these sort of observations than actual experts on the field. Most linguists, for example, do not see grammar falling to the wayside; they see language evolving.

I'm no expert, so I can't refute the argument that the Internet is dumbing down discourse, but I know who can: this woman, whose research focuses on how language and thought is unfolding through online communication.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:53 PM on January 14, 2007


I'm not entirely sure that language has been dumbed down. If anything, we're probably just more exposed to each others' piss-poor writing skills. 30 years ago, I would imagine that less inter-office communication was carried out in writing.

Also, I think that people see email as being "informal." Back in the era of memos and letters, people probably put a lot more thought into what they wrote, since print has a more "permanent" feel to it.

Don't even get me started on IM/Chat. People, is it that much harder to write "you" then it is to write "u?"
posted by Afroblanco at 12:34 AM on January 15, 2007


when presented with this silly argument i always think of history.

if you trace the english (or probably any) language historically you find that there is a constant trend toward simplicity. for instance if you read english from the 1500's it may be decipherable but is more complex: extra vowels and consonants in each word, extra words in each sentence, etc. if you move forward to shakespearean english you find the extra vowels dropping out and the language to be clearer, yet still incredibly verbose. compare that to turn-of-the-century american english writing, etc.

what we see today on the internet is simply a continuation of that trend. the trend may be accelerating due to an unprecedented increase in quantity and methods of written communication: email, text-messaging, etc. but the trend toward simplicity and directness is exactly the same as that lamented by grammarians and english teachers everywhere 20 and 50 and 100 years ago: THEE SKYE IS FALLING!
posted by jjsonp at 6:48 AM on January 15, 2007


When a writer uses proper English words, it allows for more mistakes to be made before comprehension becomes difficult. With netspeak, a single mis-typed letter can make an entire phrase vague or ambiguous.

The main problem that I have with "netspeak" is that the lazy writer who uses it is minimizing their effort at the expense of the reader. The amount of work that they save by not typing a few extra keystrokes gets shifted to the reader and multiplied in time and effort it takes to parse and comprehend meaning from what was written.

This is no problem as long as the writer doesn't expect anyone to read or respect their writing. I like to compare writing style to personal hygiene -- if you want people to respect you, you should expend the effort to keep yourself clean and presentable. If you don't care what other people think, then by all means feel free to dress like a bum and spew random gibberish on street corners.

There is certainly room for evolution, but evolution should take language forward by carrying meaning as clearly as possible with a fair balance of effort between the reader and writer, rather than the "survival of the laziest" scenario that netspeak promotes.
posted by joquarky at 9:56 AM on January 15, 2007


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