The doom or salvation of English?
Each generation needs new words to define its identity. Words like “chillax,” “phat,” and “peeps” allow teenagers to communicate without being understood by adults. The question needs to be asked, however: how long should we let our teenagers speak like teenagers?
Before we can answer this, we need to answer a larger question: what is standard English? In an interview for the radio program “With Good Reason,” English Professor Ray Nelson explains: “People in the 18th century felt that they were ready to perfect the English language ... and that’s where we get our rules for grammar. ...The rule[s] grow out of Latin, which, during the 18th century, was believed to be the perfect language.”
Perhaps historians of language will look back on our century as the one where all that work became challenged by the entertainment industry. Nelson said certain disc jockeys have given a new lease on life to “language which might have died a natural death somewhere in Malibu 10 years ago.” Popular television shows like “Malcolm in the Middle” do the same. Some of these new words die quietly. Others are immortalized in the halls of standard English.
Certainly we can’t allow our children to take their verbal cues from gangster rappers or the movie “Clueless” just because the slang of today might become the standard of tomorrow. As Ray Nelson tells his students, it’s our job as citizens to receive our language and to keep it alive and well — but there’s a rub.
No matter how much we hammer the principles of clear expression into the minds of our children, some of them will find that they can speak any way they please in cyberspace. E-mail your children or younger siblings and see how many of them e-mail you back using things like complete sentences, capitalization and the grammar you were taught in high school. Or, if you’re very brave, enter a teen chat room some time. And remember, these cyber-savvy teenagers become the undergraduates of tomorrow.
When I e-mailed some professors at U.Va. to see how the technological innovations of the last half decade have affected their classrooms, English Professor Stephen Railton said he has had more than one conversation with colleagues who felt that e-mail, in particular, has spelled the doom of student writing.
But as the world we’re preparing our kids for changes, might not that doom become salvation? When we enforce the rules of standard English, we are essentially supporting, in Nelson’s words, “the dialect of a particular class of people in England, the ruling class, the aristocratic class.” Teen speak, on the other hand, serves its own class and its own people and therefore shakes the foundations of a 200-year-old regime. Ironically, this may be music to the ears of the businesses that will employ our children.
The very technology that allows teenagers to bypass the conventions of standard English has led to a new kind of marketplace. Because business is increasingly conducted in a faceless online environment, the unconventional, raw and eclectic voice is becoming a valuable commodity. According to “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” a Web site-turned-book that has been called irreverent, brilliant and the future of business, businesses will survive in the markets of the future only to the extent to which they are willing to rewrite their sales pitches in ways that are more open, honest, funny and even shocking.
The final argument against teen speak has always been, “if you don’t stop talking like a ‘valley girl’ you’ll never get a job!” On the other hand, maybe overly-conservative adults will be the ones out of a job. How many of us have had to take computer classes just to learn one iota of what teenagers know about computers? How many of us are comfortable speaking in an honest, funny or shocking way to our customers or colleagues? Then again, we’ll always have our “stocks” and our “401(k)s” and our “IRAs” to protect us.