Reading, Writing and Speaking Skills
December 10, 2002 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The decline of literacy essay has been a cyclical product since the ancient Greeks. Isn't it funny contemporary doomsayers never mention that reading and writing medium. hot on the heels of text-destroying television, that is the Internet? Or doesn't it count? Hands up those who wish the good Marshall was still around to put us right.
posted by MiguelCardoso (28 comments total)
MetaFilter: facilitating the propagation of the literacy-enhancing virtue of the Internet medium
posted by Pretty_Generic at 3:17 AM on December 10, 2002

I'm guessing that there has always been unsubtle, dull, uneducated, slang-ridden conversation since the dawn of time. The author has decided to pick on some people who back in 1543 would have been just as stupid.

None of my friends say "dude" nor does Metafilter go on about things "sucking" [generally]. You can still find fairly intelligent, articulate people if you want to. And as Miguel points out, the author is a Nana writing the same article that has been written a thousand times before.
posted by meech at 3:57 AM on December 10, 2002

Well, McLuhan thought that literacy would lose its predominance, though I don't believe he ever believed it would actually die out. Still, he conceived television, video, radio and other media with a great deal auditory content and visual stimulation of a certain sort as on the upswing, just as literature and other writing traditionally came to replace story-telling and conversation as the main media of information exchange.

I'm more or less inclined to agree. While I doubt literacy qua knowledge of reading will ever die out, I think it would be hard to convincingly argue that the printed word is predominant over the television, radio and conversation in most people's lives as the source from which they derive information about the world.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:04 AM on December 10, 2002

Not for a second do I suspect the Athenian youth Socrates supoosedly corrupted was far less sophisticated, literate and educated than the crassest bunch of San Franciscan slackers.

It seems to me that young people today (judging by my daughters, who are 21, and their friends) are more in love with words and wordplay (SMS messages also play their part) than any previous generation. I hate the stolid idea that everything gets worse. History shows it's just wrong. Look at MetaFilter: here we are, exchanging written messages, stretching verbal expression and close-reading for the purposes of interpretation.

What has my generation (the baby boomers) done that even comes close? Nothing.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:11 AM on December 10, 2002

I hate the stolid idea that everything gets worse.

Yes. Almost everything is better than ever. It's just difficult for people to appreciate that without suffering the problems of the past themselves.

posted by Pretty_Generic at 4:24 AM on December 10, 2002

without suffering the problems of the past themselves.

I could do with a verb here, PG. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:27 AM on December 10, 2002

No, strike that. I got it. And I agree.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:30 AM on December 10, 2002

It's worth noting that McLuhan's doctoral work focused on the sophists - those folks that Plato never tired of complaining about as disruptors of truth and "real" philosophy. They were characters like Gorgias - who said that nothing exists and if something did, we couldn't know it, and Protagoras - who stressed multiple, limited, and subjective truth-claims. As McLuhan and others have pointed out, the wrting and print cultures changed all that by producing a standard, self-referential, and mass-produced text. With thousands of copies readily available, it seemed like a proper way of speaking and a proper sense of truth should exist in the real world, just like it did in the written world. Too bad it was, like everything else, just a myth. And too bad some people are still so wedded to that myth that they can't see that new media produce, by and large, new ways of thinking. As McLuhan never tired of pointing out in interviews, with new media it isn't so much a question of good or bad but rather a question of exploration, of finding out how media impact us. Few besides the stodgy illuminati of the pre-Net literacy world seem to be so threatened by that exploration.
posted by hank_14 at 4:47 AM on December 10, 2002

I'm sure you could find as many examples of people using slang creatively, to explore and play with language, as the author gave of repetitous, uninspired slang usage. I also find the author's unwillingness to address basic theories of linguistics - which have a lot to say about new words, slang, and issues of class, speech, and grammar - disappointing, especially as she's an instructor of Comp and Rhetoric at Fordham and must be aware of them.

For this essay to have any real value, besides being a whine about how dumb the kids have gotten for the already-converted to empathize with, the author should have related her response of frustration and annoyance to the well-established intellectual traditions regarding slang, then given some reasons why her annoyance was truly justified. As it is, she's simply said that the linguistic usage of college-aged people is impoverished because it consistently annoys and embarrasses her. And?

Even though it's awful and arrogant to do so, I want to quote something I wrote on this topic year ago:
Recently I began to work on an essay about why there are no longer any good essays about why there are no longer any good novels. In performing a survey of the literature, I was able to trace things back to Umak of Sur, who in 6000 B.C. etched into clay a complaint that the quality of Sumerian pictographic prose had gone down terribly since the new Gods had been introduced. "These new Gods with their quick, colorful actions and powerful wrath," he wrote, "have turned literature from useful lists of commercial transactions in beer and wheat into lengthy, digressive stories of strong men overpowering mythic beasts."

My new favorite slang term is "obtanium," for money, as in "if I had an unlimited supply of obtanium, I would buy it, but...."
posted by ftrain at 4:58 AM on December 10, 2002

From an essay on the history of the Greek language, this pertinent excerpt proves how appropriate Miguel's "...since the ancient Greeks" is:
[Attic] Greek received its definitive canonization during the first centuries of the Christian era, when the so-called Atticistic movement (or, short, Atticism) dominated, both in written literature and in rhetoric. The representatives of this movement aimed at re-creating the form of Greek that had been current in Athens in the classical period, i.e., in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Originally they were concerned only or mainly with style. When they first appeared just before the birth of Christ, the Atticists condemned the prose style of their own time as degenerated, affected and nerveless, striving to return to the allegedly simple and vigorous style of Demosthenes and Lysias. Gradually they became more radical, directing their attention also towards morphology, syntax, and above all towards vocabulary. It is manifest that, as linguistic purists often do, they exaggerated the differences between the Greek of their own day and that of the classical times; the rules that had been established in the fourth century were still adhered to in most cases, whereas the innovations that actually had been introduced concerned less important details. The enthusiastically flaw-finding Atticists exhibit features of ridiculous pedantry. During the second century AD it was possible to earn everlasting fame by composing what is known as an Atticist dictionary, i.e., a manual recording words that the ancient classical authors had employed and that were supposed to come into usage again; at times a list of words was appended, which, although existing, were not to be used by any writer cherishing self-respect. Such narrow-minded schoolmaster manuals have enjoyed an almost superstitious reverence long after their time."
posted by talos at 5:03 AM on December 10, 2002

As you can see, the suicide attempt didn't work, because the damn things fell down before I could jump off them.

Talk about excellent sentences, ftrain. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:06 AM on December 10, 2002

"These new Gods..."
That is both powerful and immensely funny. Thanks very much.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:11 AM on December 10, 2002

I, for one, salute our "new Gods with their quick, colorful actions and powerful wrath". Aren't they are called neoconservatives?

However with the recent attacks on government funding of arts and literature, I think the new gods will push things in the opposite direction, from "lengthy, digressive stories of strong men overpowering mythic beasts." to "useful lists of commercial transactions in beer and wheat"

ftrain - wow! thanks: an 8,000 year old complaint about myth and metaphor in literature!
posted by troutfishing at 5:47 AM on December 10, 2002

This author wants to shut up and get on with it, frankly. My view is that teenagers fall back on repetitive slang because they 1. need to speak differently from their parents 2. are too socially insecure to forge their own individual ways of speaking. Yet. Give them a few years and they'll grow out of it.

During Big Brother this year the twenty something cast had only one word for good - wicked. Everything was wicked. You wanted to throw a thesaurus at them.
posted by Summer at 6:05 AM on December 10, 2002

More post-Internet prose heaven from ftrain, here. Verbs, verbs , nouns and truthfulness, clickity click.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:00 AM on December 10, 2002

Verbs and more verbs and no adjectives or adverbs ( unless absolutely indispensable) being the one rule of good prose.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:03 AM on December 10, 2002

The verb in your last sentence being . . . ?
posted by divrsional at 7:12 AM on December 10, 2002

(btw, I have a big crush on your intelligence, Miguel, so don't take that amiss.)
posted by divrsional at 7:14 AM on December 10, 2002

posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:15 AM on December 10, 2002

An absolute phrase being devoid of an actual verb, it most often serves as the subject of a sentence, rather than as a sentence. But I quibble, because language is plastic, and it's not merely slang that pushes the limits of language and the tolerance of the literate. (Both, perhaps, not being bad things.) :-]
posted by divrsional at 7:24 AM on December 10, 2002

I like funkin with da syzzzyntax.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 7:27 AM on December 10, 2002

Yeah we jigga widdat.
posted by divrsional at 7:30 AM on December 10, 2002

no adjectives or adverbs ( unless absolutely indispensable)

posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:32 AM on December 10, 2002

Briever was the editor of Ftrain between 1943-1971, during the days when this Web site was worth reading. He was an interesting person - in his youth he operated a steam ship and helped unionize coal farms, when people still planted coal, but in the last years of his life, through a loophole in Maryland law, he became a slaveowner, and advocated the total destruction of Central America.

ftrain, you are a genius. Thank you for the self-link; only through your awful anachronistic arrogance was I able to experience, revere, and bookmark your site. Now I want to read through the 19th-century archives; I'll bet there's lots of good stuff there (I mean, wasn't Whitman an editor for a while?).
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on December 10, 2002

Oh, I almost forgot -- the Hall essay is totally worthless.
posted by languagehat at 9:15 AM on December 10, 2002

The problem of the incurious hordes encompasses but extends far beyond any literacy issues. I agree with Miguel that the problem has always existed--most human beings are simply tedious, lazy, and not motivated to explore--but I think that each generation sees a different face of it and tends to focus on that particular issue, since it has special relevance for them. I think the visual and information literacies increasingly required in our society will change our relationship to text literacy but doubt that they will diminish its importance or our reliance on it much, since in important ways, they are based and built upon it.
posted by rushmc at 9:35 AM on December 10, 2002

our society will change our relationship to text literacy

...and at the same time, our schools will be focusing even more on text literacy because it's one of the only forms of literacy that the educational system can find quantitative ways of assessing. I'm grading essays for the California Achievement tests this week and it's amazing what passes for a persuasive essays in some of these kids' minds nowadays. My guess [and hope] is that these kids have other skills, but the basis of their graduation from high school is going to be all about being able to read and write, which isn't altogether bad, just problematic for some of them.
posted by jessamyn at 9:51 AM on December 10, 2002

Ms. Hall confuses slang with linguistic sloppiness. While there is significant overlap, it's perfectly possible to write formal but semantically effete prose (Polonius comes to mind) or incisive slang (read Raymond Chandler).
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:50 AM on December 13, 2002

« Older It's just a bunch of squares   |   Spindizzy? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments