Angus Grieve Smith over at the MLA group on Linked In pointed me toward John McWhorter’s take on Twitter a couple of years back. [I admit to some embarrassment in referencing an article that’s TWO YEARS OLD!! But the presentism of the writing for the web is a story for another time]. McWhorter’s basic case is that Twitter is not really writing at all, but a form of graphic speech. My term, not McWhorter’s. He points out that most people even after knowing how to read and write speak in bursts of 7 to 10 words, and writing at its origins reflected these kinds of patterns. In other words, as speakers we are all twitterers. Of Twitter, McWhorter says:
The only other problem we might see in something both democratic and useful is that it will exterminate actual writing. However, there are no signs of this thus far. In 2009, the National Assessment of Education Performance found a third of American eighth graders – the ones texting madly right now — reading at or above basic proficiency, but crucially, this figure has changed little since 1992, except to rise somewhat. Just as humans can function in multiple languages, they can also function in multiple kinds of language. An analogy would be the vibrant foodie culture that has thrived and even flowered despite the spread of fast food.
Who among us really fears that future editions of this newspaper will be written in emoticons? Rather, a space has reopened in public language for the chunky, transparent, WYSIWYG quality of the earliest forms of writing, produced by people who had not yet internalized a sense that the flavor of casual language was best held back from the printed page.
This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style. Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats. As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers.
I mostly agree with this idea, that we are all code shifters. I’m less sanguine than, McWhorter, however. His eighth grade sample takes students before they’ve entered a period of schooling where they’d be expected to take on more serious reading and longer and more complex forms of writing. Twitter may not be to blame, but it’s not clear to me the state of writing and reading comprehension at higher levels is doing all that well. There’s some pretty good evidence that it isn’t. So just as a foodie culture may thrive in the midst of a lot of fast food, it’s not clear that we ought to be complacent in the face of an obesity epidemic. In the same way, just because tweeting may not signal the demise of fine writing, it’s not clear that it’s helping the average writer become more facile and sophisticated in language use.