I promised in the last post to balance political stories about language with more conventional language issues. While many news stories focus on languages in conflict (Ukrainian v. Russian in the Ukraine; Flemish v. French in Belgium; English v. Spanish in Hilton Head, S.C. and (again) in Bogota, NJ, two other threads stand out in news stories over the past ten days:
1. The media reported last week that Microsoft has filed apatent application covering verb conjugation.
While a number of reporters wrote gleefully that Microsoft was planning to slap a charge on users for every past tense or subjunctive, the reality – or as much of it as could be guessed at considering that the patent application was shrouded in trade secrecy – seems to be that Microsoft is working on software that will allow users to do things like type in a verb and wait for the program to return the correct conjugation in terms of such categories as person, mood, and aspect. Nothing more sinister, in other words, than an online dictionary or thesaurus, or a machine translator.
Or maybe, just maybe, the computer giant really is planning to license verbs the same way it already licenses Word. If that’s the case, I wonder if they’ll consider discounting lesser-used verb forms, like the pluperfect, the middle voice, and the dual, a form that hasn’t really been used in English since Anglo-Saxon days.
2. And speaking of Microsoft, newspapers have been decrying for years what they perceive to bethe negative impact of computers on our writing. On the one hand, we’ve becomed ependent on spell checkers, they cry, while on the other hand, we throw spelling conventions out the window in our email and instant messages. The press regularly treats us to teacher complaints that students are putting IM acronyms and shortcuts in their homework, writing L8R instead of ‘later,’ and cuz, not ‘because.’
But students were peppering their homeworks with smiley faces thirty years ago, long before the PC, long before Microsoft programmed a word processor to translate the keystrokes : ) into the smiley icon J, a feature only slightly more annoying than Word’s insistence on capitalizing isolated lowercase i’s.
So it’s interesting to see this week the London Times reporting on a group of British psychologists who have found that children who send lots of text messages on their mobile phones actually demonstrate increased levels of phonetic awareness and linguistic creativity. Texting, an even more minimalist form of writing than the instant message, actually makes their writing better, not worse. The researchers found that children who texted most also spelled better than their peers.
What the research also reveals is that this group of eleven year olds actually uses the mobile more for texting than for voice communication. So not only do today’s digital gadgets condition us to write more, they apparently are conditioning us to write better. As Seinfeld might put it, what’s up with that? Or, as our more sophisticated texters always say, WTF?
And if you need to know what that means, you can just type it into your Microsoft Conjugator and press < . >