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Should it be Linguistic “Loss” or “Change?”

Posted in General Findings with tags , , , , on April 19, 2009 by gobecky

Maren and I had this conversation on last year’s Cyber Census tour, when she noticed that I did not make the habit of capitalizing specific words or utilize apostrophes. The topic came back today when Maren noticed in one of my emails to our Participant Forum that I used “Weve” instead of “We’ve”. Our conversation went a bit like this:
“The meaning hasn’t changed there is no ‘weve’ in the english language that you could have mistaken it for!”
“There’s no ‘weve’ period!”

Will I betray my years of schooling and degree by sacrificing the occasional apostrophe for the sake of speed, time, and convenience? Are Boomers judging Zoomers, and vice-versa, in their manners of communication?

What I did not recognize at the time is that to most Boomers (many born and raised in pre-internet times), there is a strong ‘metamessage’ or underlying idea being communicated through grammar which is beyond the meaning of the sentence itself. Grammar is a marker of intelligence, respect, courtesy, understanding, formality, class, etc. If it looks like you didn’t have time to write the message properly, what does that say for your values? The answer is vastly different between Boomers and Zoomers.

Perhaps the lament of linguistic loss has less to do with the language itself, and more for the values that grammar embodies. I think the fear amongst cultural defenders is that this “age of convenience” will result in a loss in the dynamics of communication. Capitalizations, apostrophes, and other rules not only help communicate the words which are written, but also what is left unwritten, such as ones intellect, understanding, respect, and tact. Pre-Internet, when these grammatical rules were broken, a different “metamessage” was communicated. For “Zoomers”, it seems as though there is no metamessage. this Message-behind-the-message about their intellect and understanding has nothing to do with the message itself. For me, my use of “weve” instead of “we’ve” makes no difference to me or many of my peers because its the same message. However, for Boomers, that metamessage is still very much alive. (The irony here, however, is that the capitalization of Internet may also be percieved as “old fashioned” and may date or age the speaker. So, while proper English may dictate that we write the word as “Internet”, those who actively use the Internet rarely emphasize the term with capitalization. I only do so to avoid conflict.)
When a language changes, one could also look to see if cultural values are changing. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that culture influences language, and vice-versa. If we apply this hypothesis to the current linguistic changes facing us today, then the lack of capitalization, apostrophes, and even sentence structure may be evidence of a paradigm shift. The respect which is typically communicated in capitalizing oneself or a name may be communicated instead in the message itself, or the message’s mode of delivery. If language slowly discontinues its use of capitalizations and apostrophes (entertain the idea for me here), will we lose the social and cultural rules that went along with grammar, or will they be manifested in a different way?

Ultimately, the words “loss” and “change” may be used interchangeably, but hold significant differences in definition and describe two different attitudes. Which one do we use in describing this trend?
(What would Marshall McLuhan say?)

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