When I started writing this column, I set out to prove exactly how and why the Internet was ruining the English language. My ongoing obsession with proper grammar and spelling has fueled the fire of my disdain for the common usage of abbreviations like “BRB,” “OMG” and “LOLZ.” But the more I tried to rationalize my frustrations, the more I began to realize how unfair I was being (not to mention hypocritical, given my steadfast support for pop culture).
Like most people of my generation, I’ve spent the last 10 years or so (consciously and subconsciously) memorizing the seemingly endless list of abbreviations and colloquialisms that have emerged from cyberspace. I jumped on the bandwagon just as quickly as most kids who had recently discovered the Internet along with all its chat rooms. It was easy, fast and convenient. It wasn’t until tenth grade, when text messages became a staple in my daily routine, that I started paying close attention to the ways in which language was spiraling toward some kind of literary apocalypse.
I’m not sure why I suddenly felt the need to type out every word when messaging my friends, or why I started re-inserting the punctuation and grammatical cues that I had systemically removed in casual (technologically motivated) conversation just months before, but that’s what I did. My pet peeve began a gradual snowballing process to become the bane of my existence, however mysteriously. I despised anyone who used “LOL” in conversation, and made no apologies for my prejudice.
But this column doesn’t care much whether or not I favor popular abbreviations or not. The real issue at stake is the fact that so many young people (and recently, older folks too) have latched on to these linguistic changes with enthusiasm — and why it might not be such a bad thing.
The origins of tech-speak began with SMS messaging: Because the cost of each message went up by its size, the goal was to say as much as possible with as few characters as possible. This is how we get phrases like “How r u?” and “thanx” and “im gr8.” The fast-paced nature of instant messaging, in addition to the new way of typing on a cell phone, transformed our most basic principles of written language into an entirely new kind of communication system. Like most new cultural phenomena, young people everywhere adapted to this new style of language quickly and with ease.
Perhaps it was the swiftness of this change that warranted the greatest skepticism among older people, and maybe even for myself at the time. In an essay called “Why Email Looks Like Speech,” American University professor Naomi S. Baron asked whether e-mail is “actually hastening the demise of traditional writing norms,” and followed that up with the comment that “perhaps like teenagers, we are going through an experimental phase that we will outgrow.” She continued to speculate, imagining that “writing will return to fashion, in turn reshaping our notions of what email messages should look like. My own guess is that even if such a linguistic about-face does take place, it will not happen any time soon. For now, too many people are enjoying their linguistic recess.”
Is that what this is, a linguistic recess? And if so, why has it lasted so long? Whether through e-mail, instant message or text message, the list of abbreviations and re-appropriations of cultural idioms has only grown to be more expansive and endlessly complex. The widespread fear, of course, is that we’ll lose all sense of what language used to look like, and English as we know it will be wiped out of existence. The situation couldn’t sound more dire to linguists, writers and anyone else passionate about language. And now that certain abbreviations have found their way into our speech, isn’t it only a matter of time before the whole system collapses beneath us?
Well, not exactly. Books, articles and other forms of the written word continue to circulate, and even though a good chunk of young people aren’t particularly proficient in proper grammar usage, I don’t think this is much different than history would show. Rather, the attention paid to so-called “faulty” or “poor” writing has increased out of these unfounded fears, and technology has been labeled the culprit. But is this really so different from brand names finding their way into our mental lexicons (i.e. Kleenex or Band-Aid)? And what about swearing, slang and idioms?
I’m a firm believer that these linguistic changes have strengthened our language, not the other way around — which is why I have to come to the conclusion that technology has done the same thing. When “Google” became a definable verb, it served as a sign of our ability to adapt and build on an already productive language. Some people have argued that prescriptive grammar rules are being thrown out the window, but the fact that we can even understand this new form of technologically driven language is proof that we haven’t discarded the very rules we’re afraid of losing.
Scholars Angela Kesseler and Alexander Bergs wrote that “(new forms of) media trigger and foster a hitherto unknown linguistic creativity in their users. Writers have always made the best of the graphic and linguistic means available; today, this is no different.”
As much as I still sneer at today’s techy way of communicating, even I agree they’re right. Just don’t get me started on emoticons.