In the 15th century, there were 50 different ways to spell church. People wrote words down as they heard them, and they heard them in a multitude of different ways. So why are grammar Nazis getting in a twist about how words are being spelt on Facebook and in text messages?
We’ve all grown up in a world of print. The arrival of print in the 16th century brought huge changes to the language. For the first time, there had to be agreement on how words were spelt, so they could be typeset with the minimum of fuss and expense. This was nothing short of a revolution, which gave birth to the written language we use today.
Now the language is going through the same seismic shift it went through 500 years ago. It’s changing to adapt itself to new mediums: the Internet and mobile phones. Wading through large blocks of text isn’t practical on a screen; it tires you out. And you also have less space to say what you need to say. So the language is adapting, with shortened words and acronyms. It’s the arrival of so-called Netspeak that has the Grammar Nazis in a twist.
Don’t Fear Change
Changes in language have always got people hot and bothered. People have always been concerned that grammar is going down the drain. This desire to control the language reached its zenith in the 18th century, when the first dictionaries and grammar books appeared. A lot of those iron-hard rules have gone by the wayside, because people realised they made the language too stuffy and rigid for everyday use. With the relaxing of these rules, written material has become more accessible.
The problem is that when you transplant Netspeak from computers and mobile phones to the printed page, it looks horrible and it makes no sense. As long as our schools and institutions are living in the 20th century, we’ll still need to adhere to the rules of printed English, which is no harm, because it gives the language an anchor.
I’m as much of a spelling Nazi as anyone, but I think it’s time to stop panicking about the relaxing of grammar rules and the arrival of Netspeak. These new means of communicating are allowing people to be wonderfully inventive with language. You’ll see examples of this when you read Netymology: From Apps to Zombies by Tom Chatfield, a chronicle of Internet-inspired words. And some of these words are older than you think!