24th March 2000 at 00:00
ALPHABET TO EMAIL: How written english evolved and where it's heading. By Naomi S Baron. Routledge pound;15.99

When the United States government used the content of e-mails written by Bill Gates as the basis of a court case against him, it sent a chill through cyberspace. One Internet-based company executive complained that now "everyone is stopping and thinking about what they write". Hang on, says Baron. Isn't that supposed to be a virtue?

The executive was correct, of course, for the distinctions between written and spoken language have been fading of late, and the email has accelerated that process. With speech-recognition devices likely to replace even thee-mail within our lifetimes, there seems little chance that future generations will trouble themselves with the tedius business of reading and writing, and the wheel will have turned full circle.

Should we care? Possibly, says Baron. And by taking us through the evolution of written language from the very earliest squiggles, she makes out a convincing case forpreserving a mode of communication that is both ordered and considered. Sure, reading and writing are cumbersome - indeed, the non-specialist should be warned that some of Baron's more technical chapters need to be picked over slowly, and preferably at least twice, before they yield up their entire meaning. Furthermore, the writer is at one remove from the reader. But that is frequently nobad thing.

The alternative, Baron suggests, could well be a quagmire of verbose, sloppy and irresponsible text. The choice is ours.

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