An noteworthy discussion has been brewing in the letters section of my favourite broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald, over the past few days. It’s about that same old question of whether or not adolescents with their “technology” (that’s supposed to be uttered with vertical fist firmly shaken) are murdering – or better – bastardising the English language.

It all began with a report last week than Australia’s literacy rates – as measured by standardised testing on 15 year olds – have been steadily falling since we were ranked second in the world back in 2001.

Six years ago, Australia was ranked second behind Finland for reading. But in the latest study it has also been outstripped by South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand.

Of course, the current government blames the former government, who would doubtlessly have blamed those evil union-stacked state governments, who blame everyone else. But that aside, the report seems to have sparked a resurgence of the debate over how destructive texting and emails are to our impeccable tongue.

This letter appeared in the Herald the next day (for all these letters page links, you’ll have to scroll through, as individual letters aren’t permalinked, or you can just trust my ability to faithfully copy-paste from the original):

I was not surprised to read that our teenagers are reading less (“Australia slides down the reading list”, December 5). Rarely do I see one of them reading a book on a bus or train. Mostly they pass the time talking or texting on mobile phones. This unfamiliarity with the written word is reflected in their conversations, which seem to be bereft of grammar and comprised almost entirely of code. Mobile phones are not entirely to blame; peer pressure must share some of the guilt. Our youngsters converse, I suspect, out of a desire to be accepted rather than any need to communicate.

Garth Clarke North Sydney

Bereft of grammar? Comprised entirely of code? The fact that Mr Clarke has trouble understanding the sub-cultural lect of Sydney youths does not render their speech ungrammatical.

The following day saw a more considered argument about what literacy entails.

Australian teenagers are not necessarily reading less, Garth Clarke (Letters, December 6), it is the kind of reading they are doing that has precipitated drops in literacy.

The hours teenagers spend reading and writing SMS messages and keeping their blogs and MySpace pages updated indicates a form of literacy. These activities reflect the mutating face of language at the point at which it moves quickest; in the shared patois of the young.

An older generation schooled in the previous incarnation of proper grammar may not like it, but that construct of English is drifting into history. Should we castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English they are no longer using?

Pierre Mol Pymble

I tend to agree; like it or not, language changes. The observed drop in literacy levels (of roughly 7000 15 year olds as compared with an analogous number 6 years ago, with respect to the literacy levels of similar numbers of teenagers in 56 other surveyed countries – sorry, but we should qualify these broad statements) is possibly an artifact of the form of literacy being surveyed.

I don’t want to say that literacy – in the traditional sense – is not important, I think it’s absolutely important to adequately survive in a world that judges people superficially on how they hyphenate their noun compounds noun-compounds. What I’m saying is that as language changes, so does the written representation of it, and the form that literacy takes will inevitably change as well.

Moving on, things got no less heated the next day (I think we’re up to Saturday by now):

Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7) questions whether we have the right to “castigate our youth for not learning an archaic form of English”. Yes we should¹.

The idea that words mean whatever you want them to robs English of its power of accurate description and explanation.

Losing our language means losing its most basic function: communication.

Peter Lloyd Trevallyn (Tas)

The idea that questioning the benefit of encouraging archaic forms of education is synonymous with such an extreme postmodern position, that words are meaningless and reality is constructed by the individual, is nonsense. No one is saying that ‘words mean whatever you want them to’, rather that there isn’t some objective semantic reality that is accurately encoded in lexical representation, in words. Instead, there are regions of rough semantic space peculiar to the individual, of which their own words are a mere attempt at approximation. In the act of communicating, the goal is to have both interlocutors find the same semantic idea inside their own mental conceptual space.

Anyway, this debate has moved considerably further away from the original drop in literacy levels and threatens to border on some serious cognitive semantics. But before that happens, today’s Herald has two more additions, one of which was very interesting:

Despite the rosy views of Pierre Mol (Letters, December 7), the “form of literacy” evident in SMS and blog messages is a restricted literacy in comparison with that associated with the “archaic form” he despises.

There have always been linguistic forms associated with different age groups, cultures and occupations, but it was generally accepted that a standard, more complex version of the language existed, available to and understood by all, which, because of its structural and lexical nuances, was capable of expressing more complicated ideas.

Its relative constancy also allows access to the thoughts and feelings of millions of people from different times and cultures. The deficits in thought associated with the stripped-down English of informal electronic communication are all too evident to me in my interactions with undergraduate students.

There will always be a place for an alternative “patois”, but genuine literacy is ultimately the key to the world.

Dr Paul Foley Randwick

Dr Foley’s letter sums up the position that I belittled earlier, that the English-speaking world judges people’s worth on the basis of their largely irrelevant ability to, say, punctuate appropriately. Before I read this I’d have scoffed at it, but on reflection it’s a very good point. We shouldn’t disregard the value of a standardised register of English and the benefit of being fluent in speaking it and literate in reading it. However, it’s not the case in my view, that not being literate or fluent in a particular dialect of English renders you any less intelligent. I would also contend his point of view that sub-cultural registers and lects of any language are less complex in any meaningful way, than a standard.

If I were any more enthusiastic an epistolographer, I’d have chimed in. Instead I’ll keenly read on, until such time as the letters editor decides it’s no longer an issue.

On the original point of literacy rates, I mean really, we’re ranked sixth in the world, behind countries like Finland (where common sense was invented, just look at that nominal case system), Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Should we really be mortally worried that out kids are getting stupider when it’s really a matter of other countries’ kids improving faster?

Also, we’ve just ousted the most conservative, Thatcherite government this country has ever seen, who pulled more federal money than ever before, out of public education to fund wars, offshore prisons for foreigners and comfy ministerial chairs. What do we expect – a nation full of genii?!

Another lengthy post – I thank you for persevering, and congratulate you for making it through unscathed.


¹Ironically, a bit of a stylistic error there; ‘yes we should’ should have had an antecedent clause headed by a ‘should’ modal, but instead the previous sentence was framed in a ‘do we have the right to…’. So it should have been either Do we have the right to castigate… Yes, we do or otherwise should we castigate… Yes, we should.

I’m picking nits, I know.