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Dhaka Tribune

The rise of the era of modern textspeak

Update : 29 Mar 2018, 04:36 PM
Individuals routinely proclaiming SMS language to be a sign of the downfall of English language aren’t the most uncommon sight on social media. Whether it’s from your average grammar Nazi, a relatively older ‘purist’ or that tween who longs for the Good Old Days™ despite having been born post-2005, 'chatspeak' and even regular online discourse has been the subject of criticism for a fair while. The entire first page of the results from Urban Dictionary for the definition of chatspeak exemplifies this. It accuses both the language and its users of being “lazy”, “incompetent” or “uneducated”, and one definition even refers the readers to the definition of “annoying”. However, the top definition for 'textspeak' captures in great detail how far this dialect has actually evolved and the nuances and subtleties it has been able to achieve. Now, it is essential for the average English speaker to know the differences between 'your' and 'you’re', or 'affect' and 'effect', and admittedly, not much can be said in defense of “yo u dwn fr 2nite”. Regardless, even writing which is abbreviated to an extent where it is illegible for someone unfamiliar with current texting trends, it is barely even the tip of the iceberg that is modern textspeak. According to American academic and linguist John McWhorter, texting is a sort of “fingered speech”; that is, although it is in written format, it mimics spoken trends rather than those typically used in writing. In his TED Talk titled 'Txtng is killing language. JK!!!' McWhorter credits the loose structure and lack of punctuation that is typical of textspeak to the fact that no one has these factors in mind while speaking. So if texting does imitate speech, why should people care about such formalities now, if it didn’t occur to them while speaking? While his discussion of the evolution of 'LOL' was particularly insightful, even that does not delve into the extent of “emergent complexity” of textspeak. Textspeak has made its way from instant messaging on nearly every social media app to 140 character Tweets and perhaps most notably, into memes and Tumblr posts. It is quite likely that the latter two are most responsible for the layered figurative language this dialect has achieved, and the rapid change it has been subject to. The way in which tone, pitch, stress, body language and even eye contact are simulated or compressed into more 'sophisticated' examples of textspeak is often incredible and the resultant text is much more expressive and speech-like. In fact, the online joke trend for memes seems to be dependent almost exclusively on witty (or sometimes dumb but catchy) variations of this language form, coupled with GIFs, images and video clips. The lightning speed at which these memes are shared, all the while changing and evolving, makes these trends and the language associated with them even more widespread. An entire generation, for example, seems to be able to relate their lives to photos ranging from trash cans to bright yellow star stickers (for everything™) simply by using “me” or “same” in the caption. To quote a Tumblr post appreciating this phenomenon, “the current online Humour Discourse is remarkable because [people] trade exclusively in metaphors and implications and nobody ever, ever says anything outright and yet EVERYBODY understands each other perfectly”. The capitalization of “everybody” brings up another way in which speech-like writing is emulated. While a sense of nuance is more difficult to achieve and usually more subjective, people who spend more time writing or reading in textspeak online develop it quite naturally. For example, “EVERYBODY” demonstrates emphasis and makes use of hyperbole: of course not everyone understands each other perfectly, but such forms of jokes are so commonplace that quite a large number of people do. Similarly, full capitalization also denotes yelling, rAnDoM cApiTaLiSatIon represents mockery, and suddEN CAPITALISATION connotes excitement or outrage by imitating a sudden rise in volume. To further illustrate the degree of intricacy based on how attentive to detail the user is 'yes', 'yesss' and 'Yes.' could have wildly different meanings, based on the tones they suggest. And finally, to come full circle, the ironic use of “shrtnd writng”, which was formerly termed “cringey”, has become an excellent example of how sarcasm is achieved within this complex language system, despite the lack of context and physical indicators. There is so much more to this new language, that this article could have turned into a 5000-word dissertation if it were to continue covering aspects such as how ironically using 'm8' and 'boii' has turned these into terms of endearment. For those who are overly critical, the question can therefore be begged: does such a detailed language system call for stern criticism solely because of its disregard for standard structure? Is an adherence to a prescriptivist point of view so necessary that it overlooks such intricacies? English has always been an adaptive language, hence its longevity. The standard English we use is considered to be a part of the same Modern English era that Shakespeare belonged to. That is how swiftly language changes. To answer the questions above, perhaps McWhorter’s lines would be most apt, “There are always people worried about the decline of language and yet somehow, the world keeps spinning.”
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