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Literacy

12 August 2013

Whenever I finish a blog post I say to myself: “There. I’m done. This will be my last post. I’ll never blog again.” It feels like I’m empty. Done. Finished. And if I go against my better judgement and try to force myself to open WordPress and click Add New Post I end up staring at the dreaded blank page.

The dreaded blank page.

The dreaded blank page.

But after a while (days or sometimes weeks) I get this itch, this urge to write. An idea has formed, or a need to explore a topic in more detail. It connects with other ideas and factoids I’ve collected over the years and before I know it I once more find myself sitting in front of my computer and starting on another post.

This seems to be my process. I need these periods of downtime in order to be creative. And, being aware of this, I don’t really mind. It is as it is. It’s a small price to pay to be able to express myself in text.

Illiteracy

But this has put me in mind: what does it really mean being able to write? Is it important? And I don’t mean being able to write your name to sign for that delivery, but actually put your thoughts down in writing in a way that’s understandable to others. Is that in any way essential? Or is it like being able to sculpt or play the sitar – nice if you know how to do it, but not really important for your everyday life?

"What do they mean 'Referring to'? 'Referring'? Is that even a real word?"

“What do they mean ‘Referring to’? ‘Referring’? Is that even a real word?”

There’s a form of illiteracy spreading that takes the form of not being able to express one’s ideas and thoughts clearly enough in text for someone else to understand them. People suffering from this new illiteracy know how to write, but not how to write understandably. Their writing reveals a severe lack of understanding of basic grammar and spelling, and only rudimentary knowledge of sentence structure.

This form of illiteracy has in fact spread all the way up to the higher levels of the education system. Uppsala University is Sweden’s oldest and most prestigious university, and has traditionally been ranking well both in Sweden and internationally. But lately the professors teaching courses there have noticed a significant drop in the students’ ability to write. They don’t seem to understand that changes in word order changes the meaning of a sentence, they only have a very limited vocabulary and they suffer from a severe lack of grammatical knowledge in general. They no longer use capital letters at the beginning of sentences or full stops at the end. It’s come to the point where they can’t write reports or read and understand academic texts.

Does it matter?

But does it really matter? If everyone is on the same – albeit less than ideal – level of understanding, wouldn’t the language simply adjust and become simplified in itself? Why do we need this advanced linguistic knowledge anyway? What does it matter if students are on the literacy level of a 13-year-old? Aren’t they still smart enough? Don’t they still think unique thoughts and come up with new ideas?

In the future, we will all be subvocalising like bosses.

In the future, we will all be subvocalising like bosses.

Perhaps they do. Perhaps language doesn’t affect the way we think. And with the advent of new technologies we might never have to write things ever again. Voice-to-text solutions are limited today but they show encouraging signs of maturing into usable tools for everyday situations. And with text reading algorithms reading out loud for us we could perhaps bypass the written language all together, or at least banish it to our computers and make it into a machine language? In the near future, we could have devices interpreting the nerve signals we send to our larynx and tongue as we subvocalise our thoughts, and then easily store those thoughts digitally on the cloud, send them to our friends or publicise them to a wider audience. All of it without ever touching a keyboard or picking up a pen.

But hang on. If we’re no longer able to write comprehensible sentences, what would those subvocalised thoughts really look like? If we lack the ability to put our thoughts together according to strict grammatical rules, how would we be able to communicate them to other people? If we don’t all follow the same rules, wouldn’t we simply drift apart and end up being utterly incapable of understanding each other? We would be split up and isolated, just like in a modern version of the tower of Babel*.

Language and thought

I’ve made a lot of questions in this post, but the central one would have to be ‘Does language affect the way we think?’. And to answer that question I’d like to return to my favourite subject: human evolution.

That little ring of bone could tell future paleontologists if you were able to speak or not.

That little ring of bone could tell future paleontologists if you were able to speak or not.

In the beginning there was no language. Humans – or pre-humans, I guess - made do without ever uttering a single word. Sure, we had different calls and gestures for different things, ‘words’ if you like for things like ‘leopard’, ‘water’ and ‘crocodile’ (just like a lot of other animals), but no language as such. That lack of linguistic capability could be seen not just in the physical structure of our bodies (lack of space for a lowered and elongated larynx, the diminutive size of the hypoglossal nerve canal), but in our culture and tool industry as well. As our linguistic prowess increased so did our sophistication in tool making and arts and crafts. There seem to be a direct correlation between inventions and the use of language.

This interesting connection could well be evidence of us humans having to be able to think things through in words and sentences in order to make sense of them. Until we can put an idea into words we only perceive it as a hunch, something just beyond the grasp of our minds. So in that sense, being able to form coherent sentences is an essential requirement for constructive thoughts and ideas. Without language our minds are blind, fumbling around without a chance of ever coming up with any original thoughts of their own.

So, yes: a proper understanding of language is essential for our capability of thinking original thoughts. We need a language with a fixed set of grammatical rules in order to make sense of the confusing and ever-changing collection of ideas we have inside our minds. And if we want to communicate those ideas to others – the basis for human culture – we need everyone else to use the same grammatical rules in order for them to understand what we’re saying.

Evolution or degeneration?

If we're to survive as a species we really need to keep our minds sharp.

If we’re to survive as a species we really need to keep our minds sharp.

Language isn’t a fixed thing. It is constantly changing and evolving. New words and grammatical rules are adopted regularly and old ones disappear and are left by the roadside of the history of language like old fast food wrappers and discarded empty cans of soda pop.

But, whatever changes a language goes through it has to be a global change, a change everyone (at least eventually) is onboard with. Otherwise the language will start to degenerate and become a blunter and blunter tool. And our thoughts and minds will become blunter with it. So let us keep our language and our minds as sharp as possible. We are going to need them. Badly.

 

* For the record, the tale of the tower of Babel has always confounded me. What is the moral suppose to be? “Don’t try to do great things”? “Be wary of God, for he is a mean bastard and will mess you up good”? Honestly, does anyone have any ideas?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. A. Pope permalink
    12 August 2013 16:53

    Lesson from the Tower of Babel: “Know your place.” Not very democratic but awesome from the vantage of those in power.

    • 12 August 2013 17:58

      I’m translating that into “Don’t try too hard, or you might get noticed.” Gotcha.

      • A. Pope permalink
        12 August 2013 19:05

        Or “don’t try too hard or you will be punished for your presumption.”

  2. 12 August 2013 16:56

    I think this is very interesting…and believe that language and the ability to put ideas into words others can understand is very important. I don’t know what I’d do without it, honestly. It is intriguing to me that colleges are noticing a decline in the ability to translate ideas into words. Of course, you are your worst critic, but I’ve noticed that I often am praised more than I think I deserve for my writing skills, but then have to wonder what other examples that these people are seeing from others. It’s all very interesting.

    On the Tower of Babel story…God had just destroyed the entire wicked world with a world-covering flood. So they decided, well…we’re going to build this tower so if there’s another flood, then we can get away from it and basically “beat God”. Which I think the reason God confused the languages as punishment was because he made a promise that he’d never flood the whole Earth again, and later people were already saying “Well, that promise means nothing so we’re going to make sure we survive the next one.”

    Anyway, your last question does make me wonder if our language is evolving or degenerating. Will everyone be able to understand each other again once the previous generations are gone? I hope that language continues to strive toward being something important again. There are too few people who are fascinated by language and interested in its craft and preservation.

    • 12 August 2013 18:55

      I think it’s pretty clear we see a decline in the general ability to write comprehensibly. But then again, it wasn’t long ago ordinary people couldn’t read or write at all – something that’s, sadly, still the case in certain parts of the world. So I don’t know. Is it getting better or getting worse? Or has it been getting better but now the tide is turning? We don’t all have to be amazing authors and poets, but not being able to express our thoughts must be a huge handicap.

      Honestly, that language destruction punishment sounds a bit too much like Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984 for me to be comfortable with it. And the moral is still sort of “Don’t mess with god because he’s a psycho and also totally paranoid.” But I should really try to stay away from religious discussions. I always end up insulting people.

      I don’t buy in on this idea of language globalisation, that all languages are turning into one. According to that, we’d all be speaking English by now and all other languages would have gone extinct. I fact, we’ve always been bringing in foreign words to our languages, and people always got upset about it. There’s no difference to what’s happening now. Sure, we adopt a lot of English phrases and words to our other languages but that’s how they evolve.

      The real threat to languages is degeneration, where we impoverish our vocabulary and knowledge of basic grammar. That’s not evolution, and it would lead to more sluggish and less inventive minds.

      • 12 August 2013 20:24

        I don’t either, because other than in the United States, people aren’t forcing others to speak only their language. (It frustrates me greatly when people in America get annoyed because others don’t speak English all the time, yet Americans are the most unilingual people in the world, it seems like.)

        No worries on the religious discussions. Personally, I believe in God and creationism, but I also think a lot of the details in the Bible are simply not there or people interpret them to fit their own motivations. We really don’t know. But I respect what others believe or find from scientific evidence. It’s all important in my book.

  3. 13 August 2013 02:13

    As long as you only are THINKING it’ll be your last post, and it’s not ACTUALLY your last post, please. I so enjoy Andreas-post-days.

    I have to assume the increase in texting has had some hand in the decrease in the ability to write well? Not EXPRESS themselves, per se, but the grammatical function, the lack of capitalization, etc. It’s all about brevity and quickness there. (And sadly, textspeak. I know someone who actually SAYS “LOL” in real life, rather than laughing. When I told him it would be quicker to laugh, he was just confused altogether. It made me sad.)

    As someone who loves language (and grammar) more than almost anything, I’m so glad you decided it’s important. Now – take over the world and banish textspeak. And institute stringest penalties for poor grammar and spelling and capitalization. OR, just hire me to do it. I’d be glad to be your Overlord of Grammatical Missteps.

    • 18 August 2013 10:19

      (Goddammit, only now realised that my reply to your comment showed up as a new comment, not a reply. So I’ll try again…)

      Yeah, don’t worry. Already got another one brewing.

      Textspeak might be partially to blame. Although, as you say, only for the decreasing level of grammatical knowledge. Perhaps the whole thing is just a statistical misinterpretation and people are actually just as good (or bad) as they always were – only now, they express themselves more online, revealing their lack of grammar?

      Yes, you can be my pilkunnussija if you want.

  4. 18 August 2013 07:42

    I’m totally aware of the evolution of language and how a language needs to evolve. Hell, even Manx Gaelic evolves, perhaps more so now than in its heyday. That said, you’ll remember that I am fiercely defensive of punctuation, capitalised sentences and FULL WORDS. That’s not language evolving, it’s us devolving onto lazy slobbish meat bags. Actually, The Oatmeal agrees with me. !??? Insert link I hunted for but I’m not allowed to insert !??? ;)

    • 18 August 2013 10:18

      Yes, WordPress is not very good at links in comments anymore. Don’t know why.

      And I agree that even though languages evolve – and merge – they still need to make sense. Abolishing grammatical rules will only make sure that the language becomes less and less understandable and therefore less and less usable. And in the end, pave the way for another language to take its place.

  5. 18 August 2013 19:55

    Keep in mind that the academics decrying their students’ writing will tend to exaggerate how good they themselves were at that age, as will all adults.

    As for what progressions in a language are “good” or “bad”, that’s a hairy subject, and you probably already read my own little thumbnail sketch of the “prescriptive” versus “descriptive” points of view:
    http://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/more-bad-language/

    One principle I cover is that language has been far more diverse and faster-changing when it wasn’t recorded. The changes you see now are nothing compared to what happens in an illierate society. When everything is oral, things are rarely said the same way twice, if only because memories are imperfect (not to mention, it gets boring to tell the same story the same way.)

    • 18 August 2013 21:56

      Yes, I’m all for an evolving language, as long as we keep the quality of it high enough to be of use to us. And perhaps the current low quality language is only a symptom of an existing state of mind (or lack thereof), not a cause of it. But regardless, we should take care not to lose the precision of our language in describing our thoughts and feelings. We – and the society at large – would be worse off if that happens.

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