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The further decline of English

Technology is leading to the total breakdown in the use of English. Or something.

By Jack Ganssle
(11/02/05, 12:28:00 PM EST)

The Greeks were aghast at the idea of introducing the technologies of reading and writing into the curriculum of their time.

In a passage from one of his famous "Dialogues," Plato quotes Socrates: "The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external characters and not remember of themselves."

Greek students were supposed to memorize what they had heard as they sat around listening to learned teachers who held forth in the schools of that time. And indeed they could remember, because this type of education resulted in the development of exceptional mnemonic skills. There were no books or other memory crutches.

An educated Greek could recite a two- or three-hour poem or play from memory. Socrates was afraid that being able to write things down and read them later would dumb down the whole process and make people mentally lazy.

Socrates lost, of course, and reading and writing won the day. But he was also right; most of us today cannot remember all 15 of our phone numbers let alone a short soliloquy from Shakespeare. Once we’re much past kindergarten Dad is sick of reading “James and the Giant Peach” to use for the hundredth time; after that we get about one shot at each story we read. So we memorize nothing.

But some (including me at times) complain that writing itself is degenerating as it mirrors the every-changing argot of the common person, as if there is some gold standard that statically defines a language for all time. Though the French Academy tries to keep their language in some sort of stasis, most of us accept the evolution of language over time.

But change is hard, and each generation seems to believe their version of English is the correct one. Email has devolved the language at a rapid pace; IMO this is fine; IIRC all generations change the way we express ourselves. LOL.

My father, chief constable of the grammar police, took umbrage to one of my recent emails that used a couple of ‘net acronyms. His responded that the outrage I’d perpetrated on the English language would surely lead to a general deterioration in the level of written discourse.

That reminded me of a quote from my favorite movie of all time. Topsy Turvy is about the making of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” and is set in 1895. Gilbert’s cantankerous and very muttonchoped father scoffs at his son’s use of the newly-invented telephone, sniffing that “it will only lead to the further erosion of the English language.”

Clearly the grumpy old man of 1895 was wrong. As is my dad.

But not me. Those damn kids sending IM messages devoid of punctuation and capitalization are leading to the, uh, further breakdown of the English language.

Or something.

What do you think? Can you recite any bit of literature from memory? r u .;) w/ IM’s 4matting? We already have a bilingual president; will the nation be trilingual (English, Spanish and fast e-typing) soon?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at His website is

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