The Daily Beast’s John McWhorter–linguist, professor, political commentator—has written a concerned meditation on the future of writing composition in America, hinged loosely on the fact that Kim Kardashian’s tweets are not as literate as letters penned by Civil War soldiers.
Well, not exactly—he uses the fluency of those “modestly educated” Civil War-era letter-writers as a contrasting point for the fact that last month, the equally modestly educated superstar Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” Appalling, no doubt—good god, the errant exclamation point—but an interestingly archaic view to take when he’s blaming the demise of writing well on subsequent technologies such as electricity and Twitter. Ultimately, he posits, we’re all just more interested in talking than writing:
In 1890, W.E.B. DuBois as a student wrote “I have something to say to the world and I have taken English twelve in order to say it well,” at the end of an essay couched in language worthy of Emerson. Imagine someone who could write as elegantly as that who nevertheless thought of his compositional ability as still unrefined—and yet DuBois’ sense of these things was ordinary for his time. Cornel West has not needed to hone writing skills in that way. He, like most human beings, would rather talk, and with today’s technology, he can.
Of course, if people wish to learn to write on a particularly developed level, tutelage should be available to them. In the coming America, ideally this would be part of the value of the most challenging universities, for example. However, the idea that everyone entering the work force should be able to pen an elegant five-paragraph essay is, I suggest, obsolete.
It’s an interesting piece, but I disagree. The main point he’s missing is that in a world where social media communication is at a premium where you say something matters as much as how you say it. So while it might work in an academic rubric to compare Kardashian’s tweets to tattered men toiling away on battlegrounds writing missives home by candlelight and quill—missives that, surely they knew, might be their last!—doing so on The Daily Beast, the breaking news website arm of a defunct magazine, it seems, I don’t know, kind of fucking absurd? Then he compares Kardashian’s grasp of language to the lack of academic output by Cornel West. Okay!
To be fair, McWhorter could have been far more alarmist or patronizing about his argument—he’s got good intentions, and ultimately examines the shift in how composition is taught in schools. Generally, the thesis of his piece is that the nature of language is changing and he wants to be open to it, even if he does believe that none of us ever pick up a damn book. No, really:
At the end of the day, what makes a fluent writer is rich exposure to the printed page, certainly during childhood and optimally beyond. I know a number of people whose social media prose is much like Kardashian’s tweet. They are quite diverse in educational level, temperament, class, and race. What unites them is that none read for pleasure.
I would agree with McWhorter that reading is as important to writing as writing is, but the empirical evidence that our “social media prose” is full of trash-can grammar and misassigned proper nouns because we do not read could use as broad a view forward as the one he has for the past. What he misses is that Twitter has developed a certain, specific, and multivarious vernacular unto itself, one that has very little to do with academic essay writing, or even the “orality” he says is responsible for the shift in language. It is, to invoke a more recent throwback term, “slanguage”—the tics and rhythms of the everyday—and in my estimation, meant to convey mood more than writing. A poetics of Twitter. I am “modestly educated” yet consider myself decently above-average writer—against all odds, I even teach the profession at an internationally renowned, respected university. Yet I can’t count how many times I have fired off a tweet with improper spelling, improper phrasing, improper punctuation, on purpose—it’s part of the inflection, the intent, and the syntax. Like “Alphabetical Slaughter,” to choose a funny throwback example, or the way that Chief Keef once rhymed “dolphin” with “dolphin” on a song built around the roiling of the word “Ballin.” It’s just a different medium. He notes it himself:
It may be time to understand that the writing culture of an earlier era was a matter of fashion, much like the elaborate clothing required of anyone who stepped outside. And just as fashions can be utilitarian—houses weren’t as well heated in the old days, making all those textiles more necessary most of the year—writing ability mattered more when it was the main way one had to communicate with the world beyond one’s self.
Yes: the vernacular shifts as its purpose shifts with it. Everything’s going to be okay.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.