I am burn’d up with inflaming wrath, as Shakespeare might say. Hand me my soapbox. Lend me your ears.
Our lives are crowded out with sound, a cacophony of event and happening. The wireless arrived , and then the television; the computer, the tablet, the mobile phone. Their seductive addictive siren songs have us doing and exploring and filling our minds with an intellectual diet of our own choosing, for as great a proportion of our 24 hours as we wish.
And into the middle of this affluent Utopia governed by corporations and credit cards a new kind of language has become the norm.
You has become U, BTW is by the way. Spelling is immaterial, brevity of content paramount. It is a language designed to communicate content fast without theatre. It is basic. And it is inglorious, devoid of manners: rather than I’m sorry, have we met before? textspeak uses DIKU: do I know you?. And it replaces Excuse me, I’m just going to use the bathhroon, to IGGP: I got to go pee.
It’s not rude. Just devoid.
Someone saw this coming. But he thought a socialist state would perpetrate the language in some sinister fashion. George Orwell called it Newspeak.
“The purpose of Newspeak,” George Orwell wrote in his appendix to 1984, “was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable.”
If you engineer words, the thinking went, why: you could engineer minds.
In the event, it has not taken some sinister overlord to vanquish the grace and beauty in the language of the common man, but rather a proclivity of Western man to choose a poor linguistic diet for himself.
We have chosen textspeak. It is our communication of choice.
And as usual researchers are quick to jump to its defence. In September 2012 researchers from Coverntry University assesed 83 primary school children and 78 secondary school children: once, and then again a year later, to see if texting affected their grammar and punctuation over time.
It did not, they concluded. Indeed, children who texted had better spelling and processed text much more quickly than those who did not. A further Coventry study back in 2010 revealed children who texted had a much higher degree of phonological awareness – the building blocks of words and how they fit together.
Yet is there a teacher in Shakespeare’s old land who is not battling impoverished vocabulary in their charges? Perhaps it does not matter. These young people can spell and write quickly and efficiently, can they not?
Turn a blind eye, if you dare.
But my eyes are trained on Liverpool University’s Magnetic Resonance Centre.
This week one of the academics who has worked with the Centre- English professor Philip Davis- will stand up in front of a conference and tell them how unutterably powerful is the language of our forbears; and how if we lose the skill of writing with beauty, grace and poetry, we will lose much more than tradition.
The Centre asked 30 volunteers to have their brains tracked as they read language. They were given passages of Shakespeare; and then his words translated into everyday English.
Shakespeare’s words lit up the brain like a Christmas tree; the other translation, not so much.
And not only Shakespeare had this effect. The researchers tried William Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.
Not only does it spark a lot of activity, but also a higher level of thinking, for a long time after the words are heard. And it triggers that rarity in our society today: reflection. Great writing makes you re-evaluate your own experience. I might even go as far as to say: great writing makes you wise.
Dr Davis told today’s Telegraph: “This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”
But these latter are what people want. And so they are what the salesmen sell, and the babble of social media promotes.
Our society has a choice.
We can begin once again to immerse our children in these works of art which have been enlivening us for centuries.
Or we can let the salesmen have their souls.