Article in Brainheart

Description: Spring 2001

So we are back to hieroglyphics. Or how about :-). A typical hieroglyphic. And to ciphers for the initiated. imho (in my humble opinion).

E-mail language is special. Where I work – at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs –I see right away who has grown up with e-mail and who is still writing by hand and having someone else send it. The latter category of e-mails consists of a full page, starting and ending with polite phrases.

E-mail has stripped away unnecessary words. Chatting, too, consists of only a few lines. Brief and to the point, not unlike the time when it actually used to be carved in stone.

Even more so in the case of SMS. The words, strenuously entered on the mobile, tend to be few in number. ”Telegraphic style”, one of my teachers commented in the margin of an essay I wrote. It was meant as criticism. Today this language is a given, at least as far as SMS is concerned.

In addition, the language used is usually English or a mixture of English and the local language, such as Swedish. Or a hybrid language which is neither one nor the other, but which contains quite a bit of English. Many languages lack the equivalent of some of the English words. Those that construct their own words – such as Iceland, Norway and France – find themselves waging a losing battle against the English terms.

Maybe we are headed for what the internationalists were fighting for 150 years ago? A world language. Only it turned out not to be Esperanto, but computer Creole.

Are we impoverishing the language, adapting to necessity or is it plain laziness?
Opinions may differ, but it will take a hundred years before we know for certain. Language rarely develops as a result of decisions, fiats or conferences. It has a life of its own, shaped by what people need in order to function in their daily lives and with each other.

The worst thing of alI, I imagine, however, is non-language, that is the linguistic poverty between languages. Those who are not at home in any language – who have not mastered any language at all – are said to develop weaker bonds to other human beings and a more limited emotional life. At least this is what researchers tell us.

There is nothing wrong with allowing English to become the computer language, in my opinion. And we rarely use our own language in international contexts. There is, however, a risk that the language we use will become over-simplified and impoverished if it is not our own. The language used by the European leaders in their negotiations has been described as that of a fifteen-year old, at most.

At the same time, if we don’t use and develop our native language it becomes impoverished.
An impossible equation?

Not necessarily. We must learn to live in two linguistic worlds, adapting ourselves to the medium. Those who write an article for an evening tabloid use a different language from those who write for a scientific journal. That’s the way it should be. Those who dash off a congratulatory SMS message choose their words differently from those who give a formal dinner speech at a fiftieth birthday celebration – even though the message may ultimately be the same.

Omnibus media are having a hard time – the evening tabloids, the broad dailies, the large television networks. The niche media are growing at their expense. It may be a sign of our need to hold on to what we know, to our own little world and our immediate expertise.

What we have to work harder to accomplish is not to master the international linguistic wealth, but to preserve our own language. It is therefore good for Sweden to keep fighting for the right to use its own language within the organizations of the European Union. (Please note that everyone uses his or her own language in the European Parliament, which is then interpreted).

It is also a step forward that web addresses may now include diacritical marks. This will help preserve the national identity of names and brands. Someone with the name of Wästberg, who has almost got used to being olle.wastberg, is especially happy.

New York is clearly a melting pot. About 100 000 newcomers arrive every year, most with a different mother tongue than English. Few of the interviews conducted by the excellent local TV station NY1 with the man or woman in the street are in unaccented English.

I vacillate. But I like the universality, I like finding new forms for communicating across the borders, between generations.


Olle Wästerberg