Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Suburban Luddites ...

USA Today last week ran a few paragraphs of fretting about how Internet chat programs have caused a decline in English language skills among today's youth. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs and SWK of YellowWorld for the link.

Carl Sharp knew there was a problem when he spotted his 15-year-old son's summer job application: "i want 2 b a counselor because i love 2 work with kids." That night, the father in Phoenix removed the AOL Instant Messenger program from the family computer and informed both his children they were no longer to chat with friends online.

Mr. Sharp, whose son has apparently not found himself blessed with the native intelligence or grammar-school education necessary for code-switching between the formal and the informal in his written communications, would rather blame the Internet than a deficiency of the brain or of the school. But we don't see him forbidding his children from passing notes to each other in class, or for that matter, talking to each other on the playground, even though they use just as many linguistic shortcuts and non-standard grammatical features --- "ya know, like, we gotta!" --- in those contexts.

This kind of code-switching is already a daily necessity in our lives --- most people know when they should use the "sloppy diction" of the street dialect versus the "proper, businesslike conversation" of the boardroom and classroom, even if they're not always fluent in the latter due to lack of exposure, and in some cases find themselves dangerously out of place due to their lack of fluency in the former (consider undercover cops trying to infiltrate a drug ring). We're just not aware of this code switching because the difference isn't as formalized as that between, say, the Cantonese which people speak in Hong Kong and the formal standard Chinese they have to use in writing essays for school. I don't think I can speak English in a style remotely resembling that with which I write my class papers or even this blog, at least without significant preparation --- this is one reason why public speaking is so difficult. And even if I could speak English in this style, people would have to pay twice as much attention to understand me than if I simply spoke in short sentences of mostly monosyllabic words, the same style I use in informal emails, AIM chats, and telephone conversations.

The Internet isn't going to accelerate the decline of the literary English language; it's just proving that outside of literatures and serious journals we have no more use for literary English than a Chinese kid on ICQ has for classical Chinese. As a result, it'll probably accelerate the trend of demoticity: further grammatical and vocabulary divergence between the spoken language and the written one, and even the general acceptance of different spelling conventions for writing down the spoken language in informal communications as opposed to writing the formal language in books and the like (as in late Roman-era Greece). Actually, the situation in the Arabic and the Chinese world is just an extreme example of this phenomenon. Arabs and Chinese could all perfectly well choose to write the way they speak, and in fact do, on occasion (Hong Kong entertainment magazines, for example, are infamous for this, and just as the Internet is faulted for bad English, often find themselves the target of campaigns from angry mothers and schoolteachers who believe them to be at the root of the decline in written Chinese standards), but they keep that usage restricted so as to preserve a wide audience for their writings.

As spoken and written English separate further, and people come to recognize their separateness, it could actually reduce regional variations in the written language by preventing all but the most useful of regionalisms and neologisms from making the jump from sound waves to paper, making written English easier to study for second language learners and more robust as a medium for international communication, and possibly making the spoken English of various regions easier to study as well by promoting the creation of large bodies of informal material whose spelling and writing which accurately reflect modern pronunciation and grammar, their writers no longer being bound by some artificial standard of linguistic propriety to which they feel they should hold lest they be viewed as "uneducated." (As I've pointed out earlier, many non-native speakers of Cantonese in Hong Kong learn new slang expressions and the proper context for already-familiar ones by reading magazines written in Cantonese; non-native speakers of English have no such recourse since it is virtually impossible to find printed matter written in the spoken style; you'd have to resort to the Internet and online chat programs for that).

Online lingo may even have roots in other languages, says communications professor Robert Schrag of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The absence of vowels, for example, is similar to how Hebrew is usually written, he says. And the use of "emoticons" ¡X punctuation sequences such as :-) that create smiley faces and the like to convey emotion ¡X are a form of the pictographic characters used in Asian languages.

Sorry, plain wrong. First, don't confuse convergence with relatedness. Analogously, birds and bees both have wings, but neither one is the ancestor of the other. Generally, linguistic features get adopted from one language to another when the language from which the borrowing occurs belongs to a prestige culture. But kids dropping vowels on AIM aren't thinking, "Hey, those smart, powerful Zionist Conspirators don't use vowels in their language, I wanna be just like them, so I'll drop my vowels too," they're taking advantage of the redundancy inherent in English spelling to compress it a bit so they can type out their thoughts faster. The overwhelming majority of kids on AIM do not speak any Semitic language anyway, and probably couldn't tell you that it doesn't have vowels (though material aimed at kids in fact has vowel insertion points ... I wonder if Israeli and Arabic kids chatting away on ICQ put vowel insertion points into their chats to make it easier to read?)

Further, what people repeatedly fail to realize about Chinese characters is that all of them have a phonetic value, and that their meaning arises from that phonetic value, not the other way around. (It's analogous to the way in which "2" will mean a number which you might think of as "two" or "dos," but if you're an English speaker you'll also use that symbol to represent unrelated morphemes "to" or "two" in online chats). Written Chinese has no symbols which convey an idea which has no syllable associated with it. When Chinese and Japanese (and some Korean) people see a character, they don't think of an idea directly, but they think of a sound, which then causes them to think of the various words in which that sound appears which all share some concept between them. This is in contrast to emoticons, which have no phonetic value, and in some cases no semantic value either. When you see a sentence like "So, you think she's cuter than me :-P", the :-P isn't read aloud, but instead serves to change how you perceive the sentence, shifting it from a possibly angry accusation to a mere joke.

In fact, Chinese has characters used in a fashion similar to emoticons --- the infamous sentence final particles, placed at the end of an utterance, which serve to change the perceived emotional content of that utterance (contrast hao3 meaning plain old "okay" with all the various permutations of meaning you can get by tacking on some particles --- hao3 le "okay already!", hao3 de "great!", hao3 ba "if that's what you want, I'll be okay, but ..."). But in sharp contrast to emoticons, these characters are read aloud and have a standard, accepted phonetic value.

Finally notice that emoticons are often present ICQ conversations in Asian languages and will often be used in conjunction with sentence-final particles anyway --- see here for some emoticons made out of Chinese characters --- note for example the one labelled "ocha douzo," which uses a Chinese character meaning "in addition" and read in Japanese as katsu to serve as a pictograph of a pot of tea on a tray, which has no relation to the actual written usage of the character., just as the "P" of :-P has no phonetic or semantic relation to a man sticking his tongue out.

Monday, April 07, 2003

First Confirmed SARS Death in Malaysia

The Ministry of Health said on Sunday that a man with the country's first "probable case" of SARS died in hospital on Saturday afternoon. MalaysiaKini reports (subscription required):

According to a Bernama report, Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Mohamad Taha Arif (left) said post-mortem results revealed that the victim had symptoms of lung inflammation.
He said the man, who hails from Jerantut, Pahang, had reportedly visited China from March 6 to 14 and stayed in Singapore from March 14 to 16. He was admitted to the Hospital Kuala Lumpur on March 29.
Mohamad Taha added that the deceased's family members in Jerantut have been placed under a 10-day quarantine since Sunday as a precautionary measure.

Malaysia presently has 75 "suspected cases" of SARS.

China, Hong Kong and Singapore were among the six countries that have reported many cases of SARS. The others are Taiwan, Canada and Vietnam ... the Education Minsitry has instructed local private schools and colleges to temporarily stop recruiting students from the six countries.

Imagine the outcry if the United States Department of Education tried this ...

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