If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Language Evolution

As a Spanish teacher and general word nerd, I love stories about language; so I particularly enjoyed the coming together of a handful of stories related to changing language habits last week. First there was the coverage on both NPR and The New York Times of a new study from The Pew Internet & American Life Project on how the informal habits of writing used for IMing and text messaging are bleeding into students' school work. No one who has received a paper written by a teenager in the last five years or so can be very surprised to hear this news. I spend more time then I care to admit adding capital letters to the beginning of my students' sentences in large, angry, green pen.

As Richard Sterling, emeritus executive director of the National Writing Project, points out in the NYT article, my efforts at teaching this important aspect of correct writing may be doomed in the long run. Since the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence holds no intrinsic meaning of its own, it could very well fade into extinction. We can imagine it becoming as quaint as words like 'hath' and 'quoth'; or, for that matter, the custom of capitalizing all nouns, proper or otherwise, long since faded from common usage.

My boy Steven Pinker covers the ever changing landscape of language usage, this time in The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.), another fascinating read which I recommend highly:

Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any
level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons
several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. For
as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical
plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century.
(The Language Instinct, p 373)

Needless to say, Pinker uses the expression "language maven" pejoratively.

Teachers on the whole are pretty conservative folks when it comes to language. We place high value on established writing conventions as indications of a quality education. My personal pet peeve is the use of 'myself' in non-reflexive contexts such as, "Please hand in your form to Mrs. Calvert or myself." It makes me cringe. But it's also very much a part of the common usage, and I've even seen it used in this way by some very able and reputable writers, so I try to let it go.

When I'm having trouble letting it go, I try to remember the French and their eternal quest to save and protect the French language. The French have the Académie Française to regulate the language, laws on the books to forbid the use of anglicisms, and a pretty healthy national pride in their language and culture. Which is why it's sort of funny when I turn on NPR and hear stories like this one. If, after all that effort, the French can't hold back the English invasion, what hope do we have against IM English?

For me, the answer to this is not to give up on teaching correct usage or good writing. No one denies that there is still such a thing as good writing and bad writing, or at least effective writing and ineffective writing. But the discussion of what makes good writing is so much richer when we talk about the ways that language evolves and grows, and allow the students to work through the problem of whether those changes are for the better or not. It also opens up the possibility that we might learn something from our students as well. I love it when that happens.

A chance for all the language mavens out there to vent: what are your pet peeves in your students' writing? I know you've got some.

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