SINN: English evolves, thrives in a digital world

Over the past few decades, as our technologies have evolved to better suit our needs and, more intimately, our lifestyles, so has our usage of language.
May 28, 2013


Although this trend exists across the language barrier, English has perhaps the most complex dictionary and grammar rules widely used in the world today. Its often contradictory and exception-riddled structure (as opposed to, for instance, the smooth, equation-like plurality of Spanish) gives it a unique beauty that is the subject of fervent preservation.

            But English is changing. It always has been. This evolution is aligned with that of our technologies, our modes of communication, our culture and our environment.

            In the data age, the shift in language has not become a numerical, data-driven device. It has not withered down to a simplistic, shallow, one-dimensional purity; instead, it has become rugged, wild, dirty and vibrant as ever.

            Firstly, a perfect English dictionary has never existed. Every discipline, culture and community has its own vernacular, called jargon. The role of the dictionary in our lives, as discussed by David Skinner in an Opinion article in The New York Times, isn’t exactly to act as a bible.

Skinner says of the dictionary, “One may think it is a legal code for language; the other considers it a very partial report.”

There is no law to the extent of language. Not even the most sophisticated person operates within the field of the dictionary’s pages, especially in speech, but increasingly in text. And the role of text has taken on a more personal, instantaneous role than ever before.

The use of written words has become similar to that of speech: everyday, informal, unrefined communication.

Speech is acquired at an early age. Other than to refine our skills, most of us get the initial hang of it. Writing, on the other hand, we are instructed through the rigors of a repetitive and diligent exercise system, through every year of our academic lives. It is ingrained, whereas speech is something we pick up from our environment — most of it from our parents.

            Nowadays, with the use of texting and instant messaging on our cellphones, the nature of words has become more complex — and with it, its dictionary, its mechanics and its usage. Daily messaging has created its own vernacular, one more closely linked with speech. In a sense, writing and speaking have merged.

I often speak to my phone and tell it what to write. The words appear in a text box just as I spoke them. And although the phone has its own dictionary, it is unlike any ever published in print.

            Our devices have adopted text-speak — often abbreviations or acronyms such as LOL, or, as I sometimes prefer, LOLZ (“laugh out loud” plural), LMFAO (the explicit version), JK, NVM, BRB, IDK, and the list goes on. These structures are precise, straight-forward, to the point and no indicator of degraded language. The words are in common practice, they are pervasive and they have meaning.

Acronyms are not the only piece we have subconsciously installed into the way we communicate. For example, there are also words such as laskfabiojebsalkd. I know. It isn’t a word. But that’s not the point. It is a technique used to express complex meaning. It may convey exasperation, stress, confusion, or even replace LOL as an unutterable form of laughter.

The changing nature of words has endless implications.

            I should digress a moment to point out that writing, as Stephen King defines it, is “refined thinking.” Text messaging does not fall into that category at all. But it certainly has its place.

            What we text is now an ingredient in the pot of every writer who wishes to stay current. It is now and forever a part of our cultural language, just as proper nouns such as Apple and Microsoft, Nike and Adidas, Xbox and PlayStation are part of common vocabulary.

Our changing language represents our ability to share a plethora of creative, newly invented, quickly accepted words, phrases and tools. It reveals our desire to be precise and accurate, if playful and often crude. The acronyms we use more closely resemble the efficiency of military code, for when immediacy and timeliness are important — such as they are in today’s economy.

Sadly, many world languages are nearing their extinction, even as ours continues to simmer in its clever, creative stew.

National Geographic’s “Enduring Voices” project is working to preserve even the most remote, ancient and indigenous languages in an effort to save them from the brink of extinction. English-speakers have nothing to fear for their own, as it spreads around the globe with outstanding prominence and precedent.

Contrary to what critics say of our modern text-speak, tweets and tumbles, the language we use is not nearing its downfall. In a much larger, broader context, it is becoming more useful.

With every innovation, our language is on its way toward a richer, more diverse and more meaningful future than ever.

English is thriving in the digital age.

— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist


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