Trevor Laffan: All this text-speak and emoji talk gets my thumbs down...

Twenty years ago, Professor John Sutherland of Modern English Literature at University College London, said texting would last only a year or two. He was wrong, as Trevor Laffan laments
Trevor Laffan: All this text-speak and emoji talk gets my thumbs down...

SCREEN TIME: Text messaging is having a detrimental effect on the English language, says Trevor Laffan. Picture: Stock

BACK when mobile phones first came onto the market in Ireland, my friend got one. It was the size of a brick.

I told him he was wasting his money and I predicted they would never catch on.

Not one of my finest moments, but I take comfort from the fact that I wasn’t the only one lacking vision.

Twenty years ago, Professor John Sutherland of Modern English Literature at University College London, called texting “penmanship for illiterates” and referred to emojis as “face symbols”. 

He said texting was just a phase that would pass in “a year or two”.

Well, we were both wrong. Texting is still with us and has changed how we use the English language, and not in a good way as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t believe me, just look at some comments on Facebook and Whatsapp. Lots of that stuff could have been written by people who attended school for a few weeks but got fed up and left again.

There are no rules. It’s a free-for-all as far as spelling is concerned, and grammar is irrelevant.

Sentences are usually constructed using abbreviations, combined with a collection of emojis, GIFs and other symbols, and even these can be confusing for those not up to speed with the new lingo.

I heard a conversation recently about the use of emojis, and apparently the smiley face and the thumbs up symbols are already considered to be old fashioned. You can only use those if you were born in the fifties. The clapping hands symbol is also out of date, I’m told.

I’ve only just discovered where to find these things and already they’re old hat so I’m behind the times before I even start.

This new-fangled shorthand is convenient for messaging each other, especially when you’re trying to do it with one hand, but it is having a detrimental effect on the English language. On the other hand, some will argue that the English language is continually evolving anyway and now it’s the turn of the current generation to have a go. Maybe, but I still don’t like it.

For some people, incorrect use of language is not important but for others, mainly the older generation, it is a source of annoyance. If reading or hearing the words ‘I seen’ or ‘I done’ doesn’t bother you, then consider yourself lucky because it’s becoming more common.

Youngsters would probably accuse me of being snobbish, but I would argue that it’s just as easy to write correctly as it is to use bad grammar and incorrect spelling. It’s easier on the eye too, and if you don’t believe me, then have a go at reading a book called A Pickle For The Knowing Ones without getting frustrated.

Written by Lord Timothy Dexter, this book is a collection of anything and everything that came into his head. The title made no sense and neither did the book. He made up words and spelled them as he wished, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he left out punctuation. Instead, he put all the punctuation marks on the last page and suggested the reader should place them wherever they pleased.

According to Samuel Knapp, who wrote about his life, Dexter was a strange character. In the first instance, he was no more of a Lord than I am. That was a title he bestowed upon himself because he decided he deserved it.

In reality, he was born in Boston in 1748 to a family of farm labourers and at 16 he got an apprenticeship with a Boston leather craftsman. He later met and married a wealthy widow and lived in Boston’s well-to-do Charlestown neighbourhood.

His neighbours didn’t like him though. They considered him to be crude, uncouth, uneducated and loud. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut either, but he wasn’t stupid and knew how to make money.

Continental dollars were printed during the American Civil War and became worthless within a few years, which led to the phrase ‘not worth a continental’. Dexter bought up as many Continental dollars as he could get with his wife’s money and got them for little or nothing. His neighbours sniggered at his stupidity but in 1790, Congress declared these dollars could be traded in for treasury bonds, resulting in Dexter becoming instantly wealthy.

He built a massive house overlooking the sea to impress everyone, but went completely overboard and turned it into a monstrosity instead. He had 40 giant carved wooden statues erected around the property, each depicting a great character in American history, including one of himself.

The neighbours wanted to get rid of him so they gave him some bad advice in the hope that he’d end up broke and would have to sell up. They told him there was a shortage of coal in Newcastle and advised him to start shipping anthracite there. He didn’t even know there were coalmines there already but took their advice anyway. The arrival of his coal coincided with a miner’s strike, and he ended up making a fortune from the venture.

But he still wasn’t winning any favour with the neighbours and felt that most of them were only pretending to respect him, so he decided to test them. Dexter faked his death so he could find out what they really thought.

He built a lavish tomb and a fancy coffin and engaged the help of a few of his trusted employees to arrange the funeral. Dexter watched from a hiding place as 3,000 people turned up to eat and drink their fill and everything was going well until he left his hide-out to join in the festivities as if nothing had happened, much to the surprise of the mourners.

He died for real at the age of 59.

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