Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The barons at his court were extremely worried when they saw that the sovereign, wholly taken up with his amorous passion and unmindful of his regal dignity, was neglecting the affairs of state. When the girl suddenly died, the courtiers were greatly relieved—but not for long, because Charlemagne’s love did not die with her. The emperor had the embalmed carried to his bedchamber, where he refused to be parted from it. The Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this macabre passion, suspected an enchantment and insisted on examining the corpse. Hidden under the dead girl’s tongue he found a ring with a precious stone set in it. As soon as the ring was in Turpin’s hands, Charlemagne fell in love with the archbishop and hurriedly had the girl buried. In order to escape the embarrassing situation, Turpin flung the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne thereupon fell in love with the lake and would not leave its shores.—Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, quoting Barbey d’Aurevilly.
Is it because I’m older than dirt? Hmm, maybe, but it wouldn’t be the exact reason. The real reason is that I faced a major struggle to learn how to speak and write correct English.
It all started at Harvey Rice Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio in January 1951. The school was at that time right in the middle of the largest Hungarian neighborhood in the United States. My parents and great grandmother did not speak English at home, so I was raised speaking Hungarian. (We didn’t have a television set until later.)
My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell, sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt saying “What language is this child speaking? Is there something wrong with him?” Duh! Mrs. Idell was teaching in the middle of a Hungarian neighborhood and had no idea of what Hungarian sounded like. How 1950s is that!
I wonder whether that was the main reason we moved to the suburbs in 1951 after my brother Dan was born.There, I attended St. Henry Elementary School on Harvard Avenue where I made fairly rapid strides in learning what was for me a new language. Where, in kindergarten, I was thought to be something of a retard, by Fifth Grade and onwards I was getting all As—particularly, I might add, in English. In fact, by the Eighth Grade, I was the only person in my class who could diagram complicated sentences by parts of speech. And I got a scholarship to Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio (now called St. Peter Chanel).
With this background, I do not accept the abbreviations forced on texters, such as OMG, LOL, IMHO, YATFM, and wkewl. My idea of language is not a branch of shorthand: It is a medium for communication that attempts to be exact and even, whenever possible, elegant. I like varying my sentence architecture and even using words that might not be all that common. But I always search for the mot juste. And abbreviations and shorthand don’t qualify. I love Martine dearly, but I will not confuse her by saying 143 to her. Incidentally, it’s not the technology: it’s all the shortcuts I hate. I never even used any smileys in my e-mails, though I was e-mailing before many texters were even born.
At the risk of being thought an old fool (which imputation I will not necessarily dispute), I will continue to eschew technologies that vitiate the hard-won battles of my past life.