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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The twitterization of language

Is our language evolving into a series of inarticulate grunts?


L anguage is mankind's most powerful invention. By listening to someone speak we can see how they think. It can tell us how the Earth was formed or it can convince us the world is flat and that Stalin was a saint.

All social animals use vocal communication. Prairie dogs have it. Grey parrots have it. Whales have a complex language of mysterious, probably deeply mystical songs. It's even been suggested that trees, despite not being animals, have their own silent biochemical language by which they warn each other of threats in the environment.

Language is so important to us that among our Constitutional Amendments the first and most important is about language.

So we are rightly concerned when something degrades our ability to communicate. Orwell famously wrote how politics corrupted it, and many have opined about how adapting to the firehose of the Internet damages our comprehension. We humble bloggers pack our dreck full of empty words as we slowly claw our way to such precision, wit, and logic as we can muster, wracking our brains as we ponder those mysterious things called ‘clunkiness’ and ‘brevity’. But we are human, and we must blog. Language points us to the real world, if there is one. Without the ability to communicate, we would quickly lose the ability to think, and we would find ourselves in a dreamworld of vagueness.

That dreamworld seems to be almost upon us.

After WWII, as Orwell once eloquently described, people ran around calling anything they disagreed with ‘fascist’. Today's equivalent is ‘racism’, which no longer retains its original meaning of ‘hating people because of their race’ but now means only ‘something which somebody of the opposing tribe said and I am mad as hell about but am too lazy to figure out how to respond to’. Calling someone racist these days often marks the speaker as someone unable to articulate any real argument. People use terms of abuse as a hateful child would use a hammer: to break things. Now the victims are replying in kind, and everybody is calling everybody else a racist. At least now we have equality, of a sort.

Twitter, with its enforced brevity, probably contributes more than most to the cheapening of language. Political criticism on Twitter now often consists mainly of repetitions of the F word as adjective, noun, and verb all in the same sentence, if a string of words devoid of sense can be flattered by calling it that, as if the speaker's entire political education consists of having heard that one word, and so they must use it for everything. In the days of Linotype it would have drained the world's supply of ‘F’s and asterisks.

Even F bombs cannot stand by themselves. They are interspersed with empty pejoratives like racist, homophobic, and islamophobic, ad nauseum. People speak this way because they have so little contact with ideas that they imagine that everyone else thinks and speaks the same way: a shared language of poo-throwing.

I used to think it's an urban thing. When I first moved to the big city I was amazed at how often people cursed. Perhaps, I thought, it is because they are more miserable. Or maybe it is an affectation. People in rural areas rarely swear, the pretentious ****ing ****ers. But now I think it is a symptom of a neuronal short-circuit, whereby sensory data goes through the shortest possible path, which takes it through the infantile part of the brain.

Twitter's brevity has been praised for forcing people to telegraph and distill their ideas rather than babbling mindlessly and unfocusedly. But those in charge were unable to resist using their power to censor other people's opinions. So now it is turning into an echo chamber, where he who yells the loudest and who can pack the most F bombs in a single tweet becomes the head monkey.

The purpose of a pejorative is to create anger in the recipient and thereby inhibit thought. I'll spare you the neurophysiological explanation (just this once) but we all understand it. It is not a tool of the uneducated, but of those who know their positions will not hold up to logical analysis. They advocate change around them so that they don't have to change themselves.

When I watched commencement speakers tell the crowd they are tomorrow's leaders, I often wondered why they never seemed to smile. I used to think it was just wistfulness. But now that I am the same age as those speakers I know it was sadness.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
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