WORDS are strange and powerful things; yet we use them with blithe disregard for their power. Now that technology offers us free and effortless access to a potentially global public, and a mouthpiece for every banal and self-indulgent thought, there is – paradoxically – an unreal, onanistic quality about a great deal of the writing which appears on the internet. Just as mobile phone marketing has stimulated a logarithmic increase in chatter but little growth in thought, so the ubiquitous availability of a global platform for the written word and visual image has increased information traffic (much of it of dodgy authenticity and some of it downright unpleasant) without doing anything much to increase the amount of thoughtful writing. Unsurprisingly, much of the writing that appears in cyberspace is of the “I’m on the train and you’re breaking up” variety – idle chatter, or worse. This verbal incontinence has leaked (to extend the unpleasant metaphor) into printed writing; and the mushroom-marketing of cyber-toys such as Facebook and Twitter will put more and more pressure on people to favour us with their opinions and the trivial details of their private lives, when the truth remains (even in this age of instant, meaningless intimacy) that less is almost always more, and that silence is far more often golden than not. My view is that only Twits Tweet. This makes me a Grumpy Old Man – something of which I am only slightly ashamed.
This lack of privacy – or, as in reality TV shows and elsewhere, this neurotic desire to expose oneself – is inevitably reflected in our use and abuse of language. David Crystal has shown that all languages are and need to be in constant flux. We humans are innate mimics: it is part of our evolutionary need to belong to a group. So we Grumpy Old Men (GOM) may grunt and mumble in curmudgeonly irritation at the invasion of our vocabulary by American usage; but “chilling out” and “stress” have probably come to stay. The British watch so many television programmes and films (I nearly wrote “movies”) from the USA that it would be odd indeed if American idioms did not continually seep into the way we speak. It has been happening since 1942, when American GIs were first overpaid, oversexed and over here; and since about 1960, when the TV set replaced the radio and the upright piano in the British living-room, it became the main source both of entertainment and of information. Once the Australian soap-opera Neighbours became compulsive (and almost compulsory) viewing in about 1975, it was astonishing how many young people started to refer to university as “uni”, and ended their sentences on a rising tone to imply a question or uncertainty – a phenomenon nicely described by one of my Cambridge students as “the moronic interrogative”.
The global village first identified by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, thirty years before the World Wide Web was developed, is now (or appears to be) an inescapable reality. Here is McLuhan, prophet of cyberspace, in 1962: “. . . the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.” This is a fairly accurate description of the way the www has affected our lives. A 2005 greeting-card by Judy Horacek put this well. A woman sits at her computer, staring anxiously away behind into the void. The caption is “Impressed as she was by the worldwide web, Ann couldn’t help wondering about the world wide spider”. Some of McLuhan’s predictions (like all predictions) were wide of the target; but he saw very clearly that developments in communications and information technology were not just convenient tools, but would fundamentally change the way we think and behave.
Change is constant, inevitable – and therefore has to be accepted as a Good Thing if we are not to curl up our toes. Whether the hugely accelerated (and accelerating) rate of change is compatible with the human psyche (which has evolved very slowly) is another thing. But the way we use words has always been and ever shall be subject to change. And linguistic evolution, like its biological counterpart, has new shoots as well as extinctions; there are some things about the new use of English which are excellent. The much-mocked “inni?” is one. Unlike many other languages, English did not possess this particular piece of the linguistic jigsaw. French has “n’est-ce pas?”, German “nicht wahr?”, Italian “non è vero”, and the only African languages I know have equivalents (the word for “or”, used interrogatively). English now has “innit?”, and very useful it is – a non-pronominal rhetorical interrogative, to give it a pretentious and probably incorrect label. And it has to be true that all linguistic development is both functional and inevitable. So when discussing changes in usage – whether loss of vocabulary or linguistic nuance or the appearance of new words and phrases – the real questions have more to do with our mental and emotional evolution, and how human society is evolving, than with the details of language itself. For linguistic changes are the symptoms of changes in ourselves; and however fiercely Grumpy Old Men (like me) grumble about the degradation of grammar, syntax and vocabulary, and write “disgusted” letters to The Telegraph from Tunbridge Wells, we are wasting our breath. King Canute’s famous demonstration of our inability to prevent large historical change made the same point more effectively.