A correspondent writes to ask if I think 'communication technology like email and text messaging will lead to the demise of the thoughtful handwritten letter? If so, what will we lose in process? Will this loss also affect the English language?'
I think it's obvious that there has been a decline; but 'demise' is going too far, given the many occasions when a computer (or even an electricity supply) is not available to us. With only a small percentage of the population online in many parts of the globe (Africa, for example), letters are going to be circulating around the world for quite some time. Cost will also be a factor influencing our decisions about which genre to use - of electricity, postal mail, SMS texts, and so on. New technology will also change things: the next generation of computers, according to Bill Gates the other day, is going to be predominantly touch-sensitive. Handwriting on screen could therefore be very different in a few years time to what it is today, and maybe handwritten letters will have an (electronically mediated) resurgence. It might be cool to screen-handwrite, one day.
In the meantime, it is very important that teachers ensure kids are aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various media (including handwriting). What sorts of content suit handwriting and don't suit email (eg letters of condolence)? What sort of thing can you do with email that you can't do with handwriting (eg cutting and pasting)? There is all too often a knee-jerk reaction against new media. For example, myths abound about the supposed harm that texting does, whereas all the evidence suggests the opposite (the more you text, the better your literacy). I have a book out in June (Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, to be published by OUP) which develops this view. And there is no doubt that blogging is inculcating a 'thoughtful' approach to diary-writing online, which is currently having something of a renaissance. It is almost as if people have sensed the lack of a thoughtful personalized graphic medium and have seized on the new technology to make up for it.
I don't see any obvious connection between the loss of the handwritten letter and the formal state of a language, as seen in such areas as vocabulary and grammar. I can't think of any major effect on the English language caused by the development of this genre, so I can't think that its departure would have a major effect either. The issues raised by the potential disappearance of the handwritten letter seem to be more psychological and social than linguistic. Having just conducted a straw poll around my office, people stressed the significance they attached to the personal effort involved in handwriting a letter, the pleasure they got from its graphaesthetics (handwriting style, paper choice, etc), the information they could deduce from it (about personality, state of mind, etc), and the importance of this information to those concerned with graphological analysis (literary critics, historians, psychiatrists, forensic scientists, etc). These are all factors that young people need to know about, as they learn to manage their communicative energies.