This place matters

This place matters

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Alphabet soup

Once there was a part-time church janitor, Matt, who was very good at his job but happened to be illiterate. This became a problem when the church got a new pastor, who decided it was too big an inconvenience to give the janitor instructions verbally - he wanted to be able to give the janitor written instructions instead. Since Matt couldn't read, the pastor let him go. But Matt was a very good janitor. He soon started his own business - people don't care whether their plumber or roofer can read, only that he can do the job well and at a fair price. Soon the janitor had more work than he could handle, had to hire more employees, and before long was a very rich man. One day, a banker asked Matt to sign a contract, and Matt admitted, again, that he was illiterate. "Wow," said the banker, "you've accomplished so much. But think where you'd be if you'd learned to read." Matt replied "I'd be a part-time church janitor."
So that story might be a parable I heard in a sermon once, but here are a few real-life folks who didn't let illiteracy stop them from doing great things. 
Cherokee Indian Sequoyah, also known as George Guess, bears the distinction of being the only illiterate person known to have invented a written language. Until Sequoyah came along, Cherokee was a spoken language only. Sequoyah, a soldier for the U.S. in the early 1800s, saw white soldiers sending and receiving letters from their loved ones, and wished he and the other Cherokee soldiers could do the same. So he spent 12 years devising an 85-letter alphabet. He showed it to his tribal chiefs in 1821, and the alphabet was so simple and elegant that most members of the tribe had learned it within a year.
Incidentally, according to this account in John Lloyd and John Mitchinson's The Book of General Ignorance, Cherokee Indians don't call themselves Cherokee - they use the name Ani-Yunwiya. The word Cherokee might come from a Creek Indian word meaning people who speak another language or it might come from the Choctaw word for people who live in the mountains
Recently, scientists at London's ExCiteS Research Group realized that the Mbendjele hunter-gatherers of the Congo were way better at tracking the movements of animal populations and poaching activity in their rain forest, what with the fact that they live there and their survival depends on the ability to do so. So the groups have teamed up, using their combined resources to make the rain forest safer; the only stumbling block is that the Mbendjele don't have a written language. So scientists at ExCiteS have developed a mobile data collection app for cell phones and tablets that doesn't require reading or writing. So far, it's going great, and the names of non-literate scientists are starting to appear in scientific journal articles.
We all probably know a person or two who can only seem to write in text-speak. The way text-speak - or computer-mediated discourse as the linguists are calling it these days, makes this English major's skin crawl. It's just so horribly... wrong. Surely this trend is killing the English language as we know it, isn't it? The Christian Science Monitor once said of it:
As a dialect, text (“textese”?) is thin and unimaginative. It is bleak, bald, sad shorthand. Drab shrinktalk. The dialect has a few hieroglyphs (codes comprehensible only to initiates) and a range of face symbols. … Linguistically it’s all pig’s ear. … Texting is penmanship for illiterates.
Surely text-speak must make children less literate and inhibit their ability to communicate, right? So far, the research doesn't support that conclusion. Kids, on the whole, are quite adept at code switching - they generally know the contexts in which text-speak is appropriate and when it is not. In fact, computer mediated discourse actually seems to promote literacy

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