Does the digital age mark a turning point for alphabets?


Inspired by a smart piece written by Andrew Hindes at PRNews about why good grammar still matters in public relations, I got to thinking this morning about all the laments about the decline of spelling and grammar in the age of texting and Twitter.

According to those who complain about the effects of the digital era, the shortcuts taken in these short-form communications signal the end of civilization as we know it. But I actually think they might signal something much more exciting: the end of the artificial segregation between alphabet-based languages and ideographic languages.

Alphabets have the advantage of being infinitely flexible and much less difficult to memorize than the full repertoire of ideograms needed to be fluent in Chinese, for example. But ideographic languages win hands down when it comes to packing a lot of information into a small amount of space.

I’ve heard of contests in Chinese where people submit entire stories in a single tweet. That makes sense because you can pack 140 ideas into a Chinese tweet, whereas the 140 characters of a Roman language can’t express anywhere near that many ideas. The best counter-example I can think of in English are haiku or other poetry tweets.

So rather than lament the rise of grammar and spelling shortcuts (which are probably similar to what occured during the age of the telegraph), I think we should celebrate the spirit of creativity allowing us to communicate more efficiently and effectively…and then educate people on when it is appropriate to use the various types of communication, which should all be mastered, just as it is useful for people who speak a dialect to also master the “high language” (and the way that we speak informally to friends and more formally to business contacts, teachers, etc.). Other examples of differential communication are the technical jargon used by experts (another form of packing more information into the same amount of space) and non-technical communication about the same ideas to laypeople.

The reality of language is much more complicated than there be being one right way to speak or write for all occasions. It is about knowing and using what is best for the context, the channel, the subject and the audience. That includes the fact that sometimes the best communication means ending the alphabet’s (perceived) monopoly on our verbal written communications.


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