In the novel 1984, George Orwell predicted the rise of a language known as Newspeak. A language of oppression, Newspeak is designed to limit freedom of thought, and thus synonyms, antonyms, and “undesirable concepts” are all absent from it. It is a language that makes people think how the regime wants them to, and any thought that cannot be expressed in Newspeak is designated as “thoughtcrime”.
I think Orwell’s prediction may eventually come true. But it won’t be enforced by a totalitarian government. It will simply arise out of pure laziness.
Technology, the internet, text speak and the ubiquitous emoji are changing language. New words are being introduced on a weekly, almost daily basis. But are these words symptomatic of an evolution, or a de-evolution of our collective consciousness?
Will the ability to speak and write eloquently still be valued 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now? Or, will it eventually be considered inferior to the skills of hype, sensationalism and social media output?
Such things keep me awake at night.
The decline of writing skills has been well documented over the last few decades. Most agree that technology is to blame. Everyone from employers to university lecturers have bemoaned the lack of literacy skills in today’s generation of students and job seekers.
“It’s not just that students aren’t demonstrating critical thinking skills in their writing, basic competencies like proper syntax, spelling, and even proper structure… are being done very poorly. Teachers have been reporting anecdotally that even compared to five years ago, many are seeing declines in vocabulary, grammar, writing, and analysis (e.g. Westin, 2013; Bloomberg News, 2012).”
Azadeh Aalai, Why Can’t College Students Write Anymore?
As time goes on I believe that the current generation will unite in their illiteracy. At that point – and it’s happening already – the use of uncommon, obscure words will be frowned upon, seen as archaic and unnecessary.
As a teacher I have been criticized by students for using words that require them to reach for a dictionary. Words like negligent, oblique, fastidious, ostentatious and divulge, are bothersome to the modern student. Why use such words when much simpler words are available, they ask. Slack replaces negligent. Off-handed replaces oblique. Fussy replaces fastidious, and so on.
To a degree, I think they have a point, but when we replace a group of synonyms (inform, notify, brief, alert, confide) with one word (tell), we lose access to a whole palette of subtle nuance.
In the field of fiction, also, I believe the finely-crafted sentence will eventually take second place to the hype, the sensation, the contentious subject.
Trends in language use cannot be avoided. Once set in motion they are irreversible. The proliferation of technology has sent literacy down a path from which it will likely never return.
Young people are now in editing positions, publishing positions, positions where they act as gatekeepers for the literary world. Increasingly we will see literary proficiency as an outdated skill. Hype, social media proficiency and sensationalism will become the new literary badges of honour.
Now I want to hear your thoughts on the matter. Debate, discuss, confer, converse, exchange views.
Or just comment.