Thursday, February 26, 2009

Theories of evolution

Earlier this month the world observed the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth — coincidentally, or ironically, the same day as Abraham Lincoln's. As a communication wonk, I of course immediately began thinking about the evolution of language.

A website that I enjoy visiting when I have the time is Pain in the English, where users submit questions about usage or grammar issues to receive input, suggestions, answers and comments from others. However straightforward a question may seem, it is always illuminating to see how many different perspectives various respondents post. The most common — and certainly the most popular, or controversial — threads tend to surround changing usage of the language. Everyone has an opinion, and the opinions are strongly held, sharply articulated and fiercely defended. The discussions are interesting, enlightening, sometimes amusing and often engaging. It is difficult to sit on the sidelines as passionate people debate the pros and cons of common evolution — some would say devolution — of the language.

I'm certainly no stick-in-the-mud. I grew up in the '60s so change, even dramatic change, comes naturally to me. In communication, I am enthralled by the new possibilities supported by technology. And I welcome changes that simplify and clarify communication. But I also see a great many lazy shortcuts that diminish, rather than enhance, the message. I see slang and crude-speak making their way out of personal chats and onto the main pages of and other mainstream news sites, and I don't see the benefit. I see our societal vocabulary shrinking and cannot help but imagine that the eventual result will reduce the clarity of our communications.

Of course, the sky is not falling. But bits of it do seem to be eroding, a piece here and a chip there. Can't we find a way to move forward — to evolve — in our language without diminishing it?

I wonder what Darwin would think...?

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic