Yesterday I was re-reading the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a 2003 book by Lynne Truss about the effects of punctuation on grammar and communication. A few sections caught my eye:
Electronic media are intrinsically ephemeral, are open to perpetual revision, and work quite strenuously against any sort of historical perception. The opposite of edited, the material on the internet is unmediated, except by the technology itself. And having no price, it has questionable value. (pp 181-2)
What to call the language generated by this new form of communication? Netspeak? Weblish? Whatever you call it, linguists are generally excited by it. Naomi Baron has called Netspeak an “emerging language centaur – part speech, part writing” and David Crystal says computer-mediated language is a genuine “third medium”. But I don’t know. Remember that thing Truman Capote said years ago about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”?
I keep thinking that what we do now, with this medium of instant delivery, isn’t writing, and doesn’t even qualify as typing either: it’s just sending. What did you do today? Sent a lot of stuff. “Don’t forget to send, dear.” Receiving, sending and arithmetic – we can say goodbye to the three R’s, clearly. Where valuable office hours used to be lost to people schmoozing at the water cooler, they are now sacrificed to people publishing second-hand jokes to every person in their email address book. We send pictures, videos, web addresses, homilies, petitions and (of course) hoax virus alerts, which we later have to apologize for. The medium and the message have never been so strongly identified.
As for our writing personally to each other, how often do you hear people complain that emails subtract the tone of voice; that it’s hard to tell if someone is joking or not? Clicking on “send” has its limitations as a system of subtle communication. Which is why, of course, people use so many dashes and italics and capitals (“I AM joking!”) to compensate. That’s why they came up with the emoticon, too – the emoticon being the greatest (or most desperate, depending on how you look at it) advance in punctuation since the question mark in the reign of Charlemagne. (p. 191-2)