Ha ha! How’s that for a scholarly title? I sound like a I might actually know what I’m talking about, right?
Stranger things have happened.
For instance, yesterday the Oxford English Dictionary announced its Word of the Year. (Read about it here.) Past words of the year have included “selfie” (2013) and “vape” (2014), so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that this year, the word of the year isn’t a word at all. It’s an emoji. This emoji:
Okay, so what does this have to do with illiteracy? Well, think about it. The more we use non-literate symbols to express ourselves, the more likely we are to lose our writing skills. A few years ago, I as a librarian was shocked when the summer reading program at our local library offered kids rewards for reading emails, websites and texts instead of books. What? That’s not reading. Reading is picking up a book (or an e-reader) and reading a story, following a plotline, getting to know characters, or–if you prefer nonfiction–learning something from someone who knows more than you do. None of that is going to happen in emails, texts and even most websites. Sorry.
The new word of the year seems to be following that trend.
But maybe that’s the point. Society seems content to be dumbed down. Why not let it?
Once upon a time, only the top classes of society knew how to read and write. Books were too expensive for lower classes, who were lucky to be able to scrape together food. The advent of the printing press and the wider availability of books made it possible for more people to access the same types of knowledge as the upper classes. So the printed word began to close the gap between classes, leveling the playing field in an unprecedented way.
That Renaissance may be coming to a close, though. Every day I see more signs of the decline of the English language. Misspellings, incorrect grammar and other simple errors that a good copy editor should have corrected appear in ads, newspapers and books. It makes me wonder…if we don’t use the gift of literacy, maybe we will, eventually, lose it…and be left feeling our way through another dark age.