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American Today


Baron Honored by British Royalty

By Mike Unger

(Photo courtesy of Naomi Baron)

(Photo courtesy of Naomi Baron)

How do you know when you've written a "fascinating," "thought-provoking," and "clever" book on the English language?

Well, when the English themselves tell you so (an enthusiastic thumbs-up from William Safire, who called it "the most influential and seminal language book of the year" doesn't hurt either).

The Duke of Edinburgh—Prince Philip for all us commoners on this side of the pond—has bestowed the royal stamp of approval on Always On, linguistics professor Naomi Baron's exploration of the influence mobile technologies are having on the written and spoken word. Her work shared the English-Speaking Union's (ESU) prestigious 2008 English Language Book Award with the Oxford Student's Dictionary, and on Nov. 12 Baron received her certificate and Waterford crystal bowl in Buckingham Palace from the chairman of the English Language Council, the duke himself.

"The ceremony was delightful," says Baron, who first learned of her honor, appropriately, in an e-mail. "The duke is a lovely conversationalist. Someone handed him this lovely crystal bowl, and he said, 'You and [publisher] Oxford will need to fight over who keeps the bowl.' I said, 'No problem, I'm keeping it.'"

She certainly earned it. In Always On, Baron argues that instant messaging, cell phones, Facebook, blogs, and wikis are indeed impacting the manner in which we communicate, but not in the ways most people think. True, acronyms like LOL (laughing out loud) and BTW (by the way) are finding their way into the everyday language, but Baron believes e-mailing, IMing, and texting have had surprisingly little impact on student writing.

"If you look very seriously at real data, despite the hype in the press about all those abbreviations and acronyms and smileys, outside of a comparatively targeted population, which is generally high school students, people are not using that many of these lexical shortenings. There are social effects I think are far more profound."

The ability to stringently control when, where, and with whom we communicate is having a greater impact than spelling or grammatical issues created by mobile communication technologies, Baron says.

"It's not that we haven't had ways of controlling our interaction with people, but now we're using technologies to implement that kind of control," she says. "If I have an employee working for me, and I need to tell that person you no longer have a job, it's so much easier for me to send an e-mail, an IM, a text."

It's a communication strategy employed by people particularly when it comes to matters of the (broken) heart.

"What females will tell you over and over again is that coward, he didn't even have the guts to speak with me!" Baron says. "We have these alternative routes, so we don't have to learn how to interact with people in difficult situations. We don't have to learn to hear the other person's problems. It actually might be good for us to do that. If we feel we can control all our interactions with people, and the other person literally can't get a word in edgewise, what kind of people do we become?

"I'm not saying this is a bad medium, but to the extent we increasingly as a society feel I can decide when I want to have anything to do with you, and everybody or nine-tenths of the population starts feeling this way, what happens when we actually come together face-to-face? Do we know how to do it? Are we a bunch of social misfits? This has a lot to do with decision making, and it has a lot to do with relationships."

Baron's book clearly hit a nerve with the ESU, which awarded her 2000 book, Alphabet to Email, highly commended status. One judge went so far as to remark that Always On was "the book I that I would want to steal from this table!"

The duke, one suspects, would frown on that type of behavior, though when it comes to Naomi Baron's work on the language he so loves, he's all :)