The Wondrous Spell of E-Mail

Electronic mail will revolutionize the written word. Several writers, including Nicholas Negroponte who wrote Being Digital, suspect the fascination with sending instantaneous letters will entice people to become more facile with language. I believe they are correct.

Other writers deplore the advent of e-mail. Its quickness invites mediocre thought. Reading off an electronic monitor somehow creates an uncalled-for familiarity which results in flippant messages, poor punctuation, and creative spelling. I agree with those pundits, also.

The difference between the two sides is not about the nature of communication. They both know that true interaction requires the two-way give and take found in phone calls, team meetings, and letter exchanges. The one-way broadcast of TV shows and memoranda from the CEO appear to disseminate information, but its usefulness is in doubt if there is no feedback. A monologue is not communication. Where I see the two sides differing is in their assumptions about the English language.

Dictionaries fall into two categories: Prescriptive and Descriptive. The first prescribes rules and regulations for speaking and writing correctly, offering prescriptions and proscriptions which must be obeyed if the presentation is to be well-done. On the other hand, descriptive dictionaries describe the English language as it is spoken today. They explain things such as "Haigisms" (from Alexander Haig) which are nouns that have been "verbed" with the suffix "-ize" (such as "revolutionize" but that word was verbed in 1797).

Some people deplore the new, malformed words, the strange grammatical concepts found in pop music and experimental fiction, and the punctuation, indexing, and typography displayed in new mags. To them, English is something learned in 8th grade, a static body of knowledge similar to arithmetic or civics, not a living organism that constantly evolves over time. Only dead languages such as Latin, Greek, or Babylonian are immutable. For example, read Beowulf in its original Olde Englysh form to see how much our language has changed in a thousand years.

Granted, I don't like all the changes. I prefer using the silent 'gh' in words, but advertisers are altering the spellings to be short and readable. And the rest of us are using these newfangled constructions in regular writings. If I wrote about picking up a dozen donuts and a six-pack of lite beer, you'd know what I was talking about. In Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (published in 1987), "donut" is listed as a variant of "doughnut." "Lite" will probably appear in the 10th or 11th edition.

I believe e-mail has put us in the midst of a spelling transformation. Language is voted on by usage. Words become archaic not because of any intrinsic failing, but because people ignore them, and like unused muscles, they atrophy. There are thousands of perfectly useful words but few people know them. I could use words such as febaceous, eructation, and steatopygia, but who could I talk to using those words? Look them up for a laugh. I hope the word "bimonthly" becomes archaic because it has lost its meaning. The word can't distinguish whether you mean twice a month or every two months, and if a reader can figure out the meaning from the context, then the word is redundant.

I don't use "bimonthly," and though I always spell "light" 'correctly,' when enough others don't, then the spelling will change. Most dictionaries list new words and usages by the date of first appearance in a publication. Now that we're writing electronically, I expect the definition of publication will change, and suspect U will see ez new spellings spread thru cyberspace at the speed of lite.