Will blogs destroy English?

Sometimes I dream about blogs. I see in my sleep a vast and featureless plain of Arctic whiteness. Suddenly in the upper left quadrant a vibrating black centipede appears, then from the right, then from below, then armies of them, all wriggling, all shimmying, all croaking “blog, blog, blog”. There are shrill blogs, stentorian blogs, loud blogs, blogs piercing as cicadas, blogs throbbing as ship engine pistons, all blogging. The furore is overpowering, but I’m helpless. The noise rises and rises and rises. And suddenly stops. The wriggling stops. There is stillness. The centipedes have collapsed in exhaustion, the plain turns black and the dream is over.

I’ve tried to decode my dream, but the only explanation I can offer is that the frequencies of the various centipede blogs interfered with each other and cancelled each other out. Instead of snaking up and down in overlapping sine wave whiplashes, they collided and flatlined. Maybe not. I almost failed high school physics. Maybe I should ask a psychiatrist.

Maybe it’s a parable. According to Technorati, the blog search engine, there are 50 million blogs on the internet. My estimate is that 99.999723 per cent of these are utterly useless. Still, that leaves 49,986 with something useful in them.

Nonetheless, it troubles me that so many intelligent people burn the midnight oil reading other people’s blogs. My impression is that most blog readers read only the blogs they like, so all of the opinions siphoned into the vacant chinks in their grey matter is of a single colour. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself brainwashing.

Newspapers, for all their faults, contain a range of opinions and cover a range of current events, not just Ford’s financial woes or Tom Cruise’s eccentricities or the joys of Polish cuisine. Reading a newspaper forces you -- gently nudges you, perhaps -- to open yourself to other worlds. Blogs foster solipsism.  

Anyhow, this is a well-worn complaint about the internet. The standard response is that blogs and wikis are part of an information marketplace. In a Darwinian process of virtual competition, the truth somehow emerges. It’s a post-modern approach to truth, but no doubt has some merit -- although it bodes ill for the Fourth Estate, as the Economist noted last week in a special feature on the future of newspapers in a wired world.

As an inveterate user of blogs and wikis and news aggregators, however, I mustn’t bite the hand that feeds me. For the last couple of years, I have effectively been supported in my work by information subsidies. Nearly everything you want to know is on the web, somewhere, for free, if you drill long enough.

But one complaint I do have: I fear that blogs will destroy English prose. When you have to churn out comment as fast as possible so that other bloggers can link to you, nurturing your prose style is very far from your mind. Winston Churchill, who, whatever his faults, was a great prose stylist said "The English language is one of our great sources of inspiration and strength, and no country, or combination, or power so fertile and so vivid exists anywhere in the world." Obviously he never read blogs.

Most bloggers simply rave on, and on, and on. And then on some more. Churchill described the phenomenon in a quip about a rival politician, Ramsey MacDonald: “We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” Since most bloggers are American, and the non plus ultra of American prose is the gaseous exuberance of the interminable novels of Thomas Wolfe, perhaps, you might think, this is simply an American failing.

I fear not. The problem is the medium. On the internet, no one’s writing is curbed by concern for vanishing pine forests in Canada. Scarcity is the wellspring of style: packing the most information and opinion into the fewest words. Writers drown in abundance.

Not only that. Because what is blogged today is archived tomorrow, there’s little point in labouring over your sentences to make every pipe in the organ of English play its note. Instead, bloggers pipe their ditties on tin whistles. Blogging tends towards invective and epithet rather than wit; it uses the sabre rather than the rapier; its venom (plenty of that on the web) spatters rather than pierces.

I have a favourite sentence which I can read over and over again with delight. It is taken from the preface to Dr Johnson’s great dictionary, published in 1755, the first comprehensive one in the English language. In the preface he describes how much pain his years of labour cost him.

In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.
Johnson was a genius, one of the greatest every to use our noble tongue, and it is unfair to contrast the cadences of his supple, muscular, rhythmic prose with the burblings of political pundits. But tell me, will we ever see his like again if all we read is blogs?

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.


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