It's only spelling
They are in some danger over at Read Street of getting their shorts in a bunch over spelling, provoked by the scores of subliterate comments on their posts about Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer. * “How much slippage can we tolerate” in spelling? “Will all writing someday slip soundlessly into a weird sort of Internet dialect: i mist u 4eva!!!!!!!! Or will we be subjected to a mash of misspellings: King is jelous becuz Meyer took his audiance; he shudnt b critizicing. Or — shudder — both.” **
Coincidentally, Language Log has recently addressed spelling in a post about a faux-Russian version of lolcats, the Web site with photos of cats to which have been appended jocular captions with substandard spellings, “I can haz cheezburger?” being perhaps the most famous. (The comments are worth a look, particularly the ones in which people with no apparent sense of humor comment on humor.)
The former Viewing With Alarm and the latter analysis of humor both depend on a standard orthography, which is really a comparatively recent development in writing. Think of Shakespeare, with those half-dozen authenticated signatures displaying variant spellings of his own name. Think of the luxuriant varieties of spelling in the 18th century. Standardized spelling is essentially a product of the 19th century, and it developed in the United States primarily out of two phenomena: establishment of widespread public education and the remarkable popularity of Noah Webster’s spelling books and dictionary.
This led in turn to the kind of humor most popular in 19th-century America, the semi-literate personae of Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby — satire in which rubes comment ignorantly on current events with funny spellings and broken-down grammar. But it’s only when the audience knows better that this kind of humor can seem funny. ***
So the jokes in lolcats only work if the readers can identify and laugh at the silly spellings.
And as for the kids, with their damnable texting and Twittering, I am confident that when they have to get jobs, they will quickly learn how to write as badly as anyone in business or government.
* I mean, what did they expect? Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer? Salon conversation? Dry donnish wit over port in the common room? Look at the people who read that stuff. They’re like fans who write to the alternative press complaining about the pop music reviews. Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer — you might as well try to referee an argument between adherents of New Kids on the Block and the Jonas Brothers. What’s most distressing about Internet commentary is not the defective grammar or uncertain spelling, but the lack of reasonable argument and civility.
** Those damn kids with their loud music and their crazy clothes and their sloppy spelling, etc., etc.
*** My parents, who lived their entire lives in Fleming County Kentucky, on the edge of Appalachian, and who both spoke with identifiable regional accent, loved watching Hee-Haw. They got to laugh at the hicks.