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Are we losing our language, as well as our minds?

The recent Women & Words conference in Coquitlam, BC, got me ruminating, once again, about language,  books and the multitude of techno-gadgets that keep us distracted from what’s really going on.

It’s clear that we’re living in an increasingly digital environment and I doubt that there will be many physical bookshops left by 2020. It’s not that they don’t represent a unique retailing experience; they do, but I don’t think that will be enough to ensure their survival. It won’t be enough to have ‘good’ bookshops, filled with interesting books, a wide range of genres, and helpful, knowledgeable staff. This kind of offering is too passive to be sustainable in our rapidly evolving world. What’s required is a much more seamless marriage between digital and printed products, and an active embracement of emerging media opportunities. ‘Good’ bookshops will have e-readers, Kindles, iPads, computer stations for downloading e-books with the assistance of staff, and printing stations for those who want to print out all or part of their e-book. They will have an educational component, offering instruction on digital browsing, blog writing/posting, apps, and other elements relating to social and interactive media. They will become leaders in written and digital communication, rather than simply trying to add value to the static printed-book product.

The digital revolution has had another significant impact: in addition to changing our mechanisms of communication, it is changing the language itself. SMS, e-mails and other forms of instant communication are causing our language to become fragmented and to be broken down into its most primitive elements. Words are truncated and punctuation is omitted. Keywords are used as code. Some claim that our language is simply evolving; that may be true, but it’s not a pretty sight. To me, language appears to be degenerating. People write your when they mean you’rewhose when they mean who’sit’s when they mean its, and which when they mean that. It’s sloppy, unattractive and downright annoying — for those who love language. Unfortunately, even before the digital revolution, our education systems failed to efficiently teach grammatical correctness or promote the value of eloquent, articulate communication. Now, for young people particularly, the ability to communicate via online social media is far more important than the art of communication. And this is the key issue: we are losing the integrity and artistry of our language. Even printed books produced by well-known publishing houses are full of grammatical errors and lazy punctuation — quite apart from the Americanisms that have seeped into every linguistic crevice of the Anglophone world.

While the digital revolution may be hugely beneficial in terms of enhancing the content of what we say and the mechanisms we use to deliver our message, it is decimating our language and the articulacy with which we express ourselves. For most people, that doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, that collective indifference is reducing our communications down to the level of the lowest common denominator. While global digital communication is shrinking our world and putting us increasingly in touch with each other, it’s resulting in multi-tasking, short attention spans, rapid-fire communication, and chronic interruptions. It’s also shrinking our brains, affecting our health, and diluting our linguistic personality in ways that will ultimately force us to emotionally reconnect with ourselves, to revert to old values, and to turn off the computer, the cellphone, the iPhone, the iPod and the whole wide world of digital noise so we can curl up peacefully on the sofa with a really good book.

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