Sunday 27 March 2011

Placing initialisms

Every three months the Oxford English Dictionary adds revisions of current definitions, new entries and new subordinate entries to the OED online (which, many people are not aware, can be freely accessed at home using your membership number for your local library).

This quarter’s new entries include, inter alia, the initialisms OMG, LOL, IMHO and BFF that are associated with the new medium of electronic communication and, therefore by extension, children and young adults. Apart from the surprisingly early first use of OMG in a collection of published letters from 1917, the earliest citations are found in the 1990s and most often in Internet Usenet newsgroup discussions.

I am regularly teased for having more prescriptivist tendencies when it comes to the English language but I do very much acknowledge that language does (and must) develop and move forward; however, I feel that the foundations on which the developments are made and occur should not be forgotten and am – admittedly – more defensive in my personal desire to see a living archive of language rather than the more liberal thinkers’ approach of consigning punctuation, spelling and grammar rules to history.

In a world in which boundaries are routinely blurred as a result of people’s use of and reliance on technology, it is not uncommon to see these initialisms appearing in my pupils’ work. Apart from ensuring that I have to keep up to date with examples I was not using on the Internet before many of them were born (a fact that surprises many of my students), the students are, as children and young adults have done for many generations, merely trying to establish their own identity through their sociolect, which is doubtless the reason they bridle if I write ‘LOL!’ in the margin of their books next to something genuinely funny.

I am not against people using these initialisms, but what I do find infuriating is the way in which they have become accepted as a societal norm in any medium. When instant messaging, the written word replaces the spoken: its immediacy can readily mean that capital ‘I’s may be forgotten, paragraph breaks are not used and shortened forms abound. It is a private conversation for personal consumption. The immediacy and length restrictions on a text message mean that shortened forms may be necessary, but they are, again, private exchanges.

E-mails (and the question of whether I should have used a lower case ‘e’ and a hyphen is still to be answered) start blurring the boundaries. They have the immediacy of a text message but today an e-mail often replaces a letter. Is this, therefore, a formal piece of text, or not? The answer, obviously, depends on who the recipient is: the audience.

My frustrations come back to the mantra that we endeavour to instil in English lessons where writing is concerned: whatever the piece of writing, the three things which must always be considered are purpose, audience and form. Writers, be they children or adults, need to be able to distinguish between the situations and media and make their language choices appropriately. However, while people demonstrate an increasing incapability to do so, it is reassuring to know that the OED is still recording usage and helping those still bewildered by BFF.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Relationships with Facebook

In different circles I have heard the question of what we all did with our time ‘before Facebook’ raised a couple of times this week. I know that back in August 2007 Facebook quickly become part of my computer routine and, having had a smartphone for the past eight months, I now regularly take opportunities to see what my friends (and I do pride myself on the fact that I have, with only a couple of exceptions, met all the people with whom I am friends in person) are doing or have been doing.

There have been stories in the press of couples splitting up over Facebook, and by this the reports mean one half of the couple discovering they are no longer an item thanks to a status update, rather than Facebook itself being the cause of the split. To a bystander who does not know the people or details, these headlines indicate something of an abhorrent manner in which to behave, but it is surely only the logical extension of perpetually broadcasting the details of one’s life on a public forum, rather than managing the public and private spheres and informing one’s soon-to-be-ex of their impending situation privately over the telephone or (shock, horror) face to face.

Traditionally, social announcements were made in the London papers – indeed, for a small fortune they can still be made in the London papers – but now details of relationships can be precisely addressed to their target audience at no cost. Earlier this week I was saddened to see the relationship statuses of two friends change from being ‘In a relationship’ to being ‘Single’; while I have seen these changes being made by individual friends before, this is the first time when I have known both people and seen their profiles change in such a synchronised way. The touching thing that followed this was the number of messages, albeit public, of reassurance and support that each party received.

The use of Facebook also came up this week in individual tutorials (or ‘Learning Reviews’ as they are officially termed for us) with pupils at school. As the exam season is looming large, it was reassuring to be told, unprompted, by two A-Level students that they had deactivated their Facebook accounts and had no intention of using them again until the summer. I half seriously asked both students whether they were suffering withdrawal symptoms and both said that while they knew they had to deactivate their accounts for the good of their revision, they had suffered no anxiety about not logging on since deactivating them.

While I was pleased to hear about their decision and that it was not causing them additional anguish, it did make me wonder how we really view and use Facebook. Deactivating an account leaves it dormant on the system and the simple process of logging on to Facebook again will reactivate it. If it is possible to disconnect and reconnect so easily from one’s personal social network, what does that say for the nature of today’s human relationships which underpin the whole concept of social networking?

Sunday 13 March 2011

Ancient and Modern

In what is an era of rapid change in so many areas of our lives, I am a great believer in respecting tradition and upholding customs (even if they are, at times, outmoded) as I feel it is important that identities and histories are not lost in the name of progress. Nevertheless, when people do make changes, as long as they are justified, explained and attempt to retain the spirit of the original concept, I endeavour to accept them without complaint and view them as the next stage of development in what are often long established practices. I like to think I am not so arrogant as to insist that people, societies and nations remain static.

However, in the course of this week I was faced with a tradition being up-held which frustrated me. The Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust is inviting applications for two new trustees as a result of two retirements. According to the publicity, the Trust makes charitable grants to individuals aged under 25 to further their education and to local organisations for more general purposes and, having been resident in Lichfield for more than five years and thereby fulfilling the stated requirements of the post, feeling that this might be a good opportunity to get more involved in the local community I decided to apply.

I already knew that the Trust had been founded in January 1545 to provide water for Lichfield and it was an organisation I had encountered while researching the history of the Cathedral’s Choral Foundation as records of Chapter’s nineteenth century meetings discussing the management of all aspects of Cathedral life include the provision of water for individual houses in The Close.

The fact that it is such a historical organisation had an inherent appeal, and the four meetings a year seemed manageable; the only question to which I did not know the answer was when the meetings were held.

I contacted a representative of the Trust to answer this question and was given the dates. Apparently, the meetings in March, June and September are always held on Wednesdays and December’s meeting is held on a Tuesday in keeping with an ancient tradition. Quaint, but not unmanageable. However, the meetings are always held at 3.30pm and, having been that way throughout living memory, I was brightly and confidently told ‘that’s not likely to change any time soon’.

Suddenly, a tradition was being upheld but for what purpose? By implication, the applicants and trustees must, most likely, either be retired or unemployed. The trustees of a charity making donations to help young people are to be distanced from their beneficiaries: I had felt that, as a teacher, one of the strengths of my application would be my work with young people.

I bit my tongue merely saying that, being a teacher, there was clearly no point in applying – which was duly agreed with – and I hung up. I struggled mentally for a few minutes with the question of tradition and rationality and decided that if people are going to be so protective of traditions which, when considered in the larger scheme of things, appear risible there would be no point in questioning it.

As I sighed to myself, I was left with my penchant for tradition tarnished and a sense of disappointment that, even in our era of rapid change, there are still some people who seem too stubborn to acknowledge it.

Sunday 6 March 2011

A cry of despair and a warning to humanity

Two years ago my wife and I visited Krakow for the first time. As part of the trip we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two most famous German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. The experience of visiting the concentration camps is undeniably harrowing, but one that people should certainly take if given the opportunity.

Over half term we returned to Krakow but did not make a return visit to the Oświęcim (Auschwitz’s pre-Nazi-occupation name). However, this time we visited a relatively new museum established in what had been Oskar Schindler’s factory. While there is much that could be said about Schindler and Hollywood’s presentation of his eponymous list, there was one exhibit from the museum – a video reconstruction of an event which occurred in November 1939 – which lodged itself in my mind.

When visiting the concentration camps, the headline figures are always – understandably – about the number of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Indeed, much of the Schindler museum shows the way the Jews were forced to live in Krakow and the way in which they were treated while still, in name at least, free. However there were many other groups of people who were also sent to the camps and one group, imprisoned in the Nazi operation codenamed Sonderaktion Krakau, was the Polish university professors.

On 6 November 1939, the rector of the Jagiellonian University – the fourteenth century University of Krakow – was obliged by the SS to instruct all Polish professors to attend a lecture on German plans for Polish education. There was (and it is easy to say now) of course, no lecture. The 144 professors who turned up and another 39 people in the building were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps on the pretext that the university was educating people without German consent.

Although an international outcry led to the release of 101 professors aged over 40 in February 1940 several of the older individuals had not survived the relatively short stay in the camps’ terrible conditions and notable Polish academics died.

This operation was one of many which made up the Nazi’s plan, the Intelligenzaktion, to rid Poland of the Polish intellectual elite as the educated were deemed to pose a threat to the ‘Germanisation’ of Poland. Under the plan around 60,000 intellectuals and members of the upper classes were killed and Polish secondary and higher education was stopped until the end of the second world war.

Denying people education is a simple means by which to control a population and perpetrate the ruling class’s ideology and status. In twenty-first century Britain we are in a position where ‘Every Child Matters’ and every child is duly entitled to an education up to the age of 18, but beyond 18 the country is currently in a state of flux. As university educations are being priced at £27,000 students are understandably worrying about the options open to them in the future. It is not clear where this will leave tertiary education in this country in five, ten or twenty years’ time, but in a world which is changing so rapidly, education and academics are essential and – although I know it is idealistic to say so –  their existence cannot, or at least should not, be based on money alone.