Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A note on "texting" and the meaning of literacy

I don't have much to say about The Great Chicken Feed earlier this month. I was generally pleased to see that the average person in the US is not ready to be bullied by the politically correct cowards running their country, but beyond that took little interest. It's not my country, after all.

But there is one little thing that really bugged me about it. The name of the company, "Chick-Fil-A" is a perfect demonstration of the general illiteracy that is growing as the world turns more and more to reading internetese rather than real language. The name, "Chick-fil-A" doesn't make sense to a literate person. You have to be functionally illiterate for that combination of letters to make the mental "sound" desired by the company's founders.

This is the reason "texting" doesn't work on me:

I can read.

It finally twigged why combinations of letters like "ur" for "you are" don't make any sense to me, and can give us a hint of the origins of the general loss of the ability to read. It's not just the internet that has left us unable to read deeply and with attention.

There are two distinct problems going on in a collection of letters and symbols like the following:

"Hate it when ur tired but get in bed & u cant sleep."
To a literate person, putting these letters "ur" and "u" in place of words does not produce the desired result. For those of us raised on reading, this produces first incomprehension, then irritation at the unnecessary extra work the texter is making us do, then contempt and disgust for the person's total inability to function as an adult. What it "sounds" like in my head is, "I hate it when err tired but get in bed and oo can't sleep."

Here is how language works when you can read.

A word on a page does not look to us like a collection of letters to be interpreted into a sound. It simply makes a mental sound in our heads, and that sound is connected to a meaning. There is no separation of time or understanding, no extra work involved, between looking at a word in print and "hearing" the sound it makes in your head and understanding the meaning of that sound. Those three tasks are one automatic mental function.

So to a literate person, the combination "ur" makes a mental "sound" like "err". We do not look at it and mentally hear "yoo ahr". This is because we have been taught to read at an early enough age that the appearance of the letter and the sound it represents are one and the same. We don't look at a word and start by identifying by the names of each letter, then translate each letter into the sound it is intended to represent.

We know there is a difference between the sound, the phoneme, for which the letter is a symbol and the name of the letter in the alphabet.

The name of the letter "u" is pronounced "yoo". But the name of the letter and the sound it symbolises are not the same thing. So to replace the English words "you are" with "ur" doesn't make sense to us. In fact, it trips us up and leaves us going back to the beginning of the sentence and trying to figure out what it says.

When a literate person reads, the text isn't text. It's sounds. So "ur" reads in our heads as "err". And it interrupts the sense that the texter is trying to convey.

So, to the ever-shrinking world of the genuinely literate, "Chick-fil-A" makes the "sound" in our heads: "chickfillah".

No word of a lie, it took me at least two weeks to figure out that it was supposed to be some sort of cutsie deliberate advertising "miss-spelling" of "chick filet". And it only came clear when I watched a news video about the whole thing, and then I went rapidly through the process of "incomprehension, irritation, contempt and disgust".

I remember once many years ago my mother describing this problem when she was telling me about teaching remedial English. She had noticed that there was a problem, that was already getting worse in the late 1970s, with kids connecting the appearance of a word and the sound it makes. They had been taught to "sound out" a word by laboriously identifying each letter, then going back and imitating the phoneme, and then dragging it all together to make one sound and then imposing a meaning, a process so irksome that the kid just gives up out of frustration and boredom, and looks upon reading as a tedious chore, probably for the rest of his life.

To start with, they had not been raised reading books. No one had read them stories at night before bedtime, or they had been given books with large pictures and only a single line of monosyllabic type, books that were ostensibly designed to encourage them to read on their own and so were dumbed down to the lowest possible level.

Traditionally, adults read books to children that were considerably above their initial reading level. A.A. Milne's poems and stories were written not to be read by the child, but by the parent to the child. As the child gets older, the idea is already instilled that a book contains wonders and pleasures, that a book is a treasure trove to be unlocked, or a door to another world. The parent continues to read books that have real characters, real adventures, and he naturally wants to read them on his own. When a parent gets up in the middle of the night and finds his son reading a novel under the covers with a flashlight, he knows the task is accomplished.

But now, if parents read to kids, it is from those books with child-like pictures, no characters with whom he can identify, little text at all and no real stories, no depth or literary meat on them. No one has ever read a book to him that transports him to another world, teaches him anything, arouses his imagination or, crucially, makes him long to read it himself. If he is looking at anything under the covers in our time, it is porn on his laptop.

Even in 1979 when my mother was teaching, it was already happening. Kids were not interested in words because they were nothing but chores, unpleasant work that needed to be got through before the bell released them from the soul-crushing tedium of the classroom and he could go home and watch TV. He never learned to make the connection between letters, words, sounds and meaning, let alone books and joy.

My mother had to explain to me that when some kids saw a word, it didn't make a sound in their heads. They had to stop and "read" it. That is, figure it out in the painful, tedious way they had been taught. So it was no wonder they didn't do it unless they absolutely had to. This, she said, is the difference between genuine literacy and the "functional illiteracy" that had become the norm, even before the 80s.

Then, along came Atari.