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November 02, 2011

Modern Evolution of Language: What Role does Twitter Play?

By Nicole Edry, TMCnet Contributor

If an alien were to come to the United States and attempt a crash course on the best way to understand this strange species, what would they use? Well, the answer may very well be Twitter (News - Alert). Many disagree on the pros and cons of this ever-growing social networking site, but it unarguably provides a snapshot of today’s zeitgeist. In fact, there is such clarity to its social insights that people are using it to successfully predict stock market trends. Regardless, a growing concern is that Twitterspeak is altering the English language, and not for the better.

Actor Ralph Fiennes stirred the pot last week when he declared that sites like Twitter are dumbing down our language, and corrupting it for future generations. “We’re in a world of truncated sentences, sound bites and Twitter…[Language] is being eroded — it’s changing. Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.” Personally, I think this is a rather highbrow and over-generalized statement. Language is constantly evolving and changing, and is fundamentally unable to be static. If it were, we would still be saying things like “to wit, thine eyes doth shine like stars.” Don’t get me wrong…I love Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and other literary giants. But part of what makes studying them so fascinating is the clear linguistic difference only focuses our historical lens to help paint a picture of life back then.

The limitation of 140 characters may in fact be a blessing in disguise. It certainly isn’t hurting Twitter’s popularity, considering how many businesses and products rely on sites like it to market themselves. I remember my ninth-grade English teacher telling me that I used 25 words to say something that could easily be conveyed in five. She told me that every good writer must self-edit, and that longer terms do not necessarily translate into higher quality. On Twitter, you are encouraged to make simple statements without ornamentation that obfuscates its true meaning. Most people do not think in flowery prose but in simple words, and Twitter encourages this latter, more accurate form of communication. Is it as pretty and awe-inspiring as the words of Shakespeare? No. It is a more honest portrayal of modern times? Yes.

As Twitter supporters have pointed out, a clear timeline and up-to-date commentary show real-time reactions to breaking news. Twitter also facilitates studies of sociolinguistics, as it is easy to follow word trends for different regions and demographics. Social sciences theoretically are in favor of vehicles like Twitter, which provide unprecedented glimpses into the evolution of language, as noted in Wired Magazine. “It’s widely thought that human language evolved in universally similar ways…and possibly reflecting common linguistic structures in our brains. Instead, language seems to have evolved along varied, complicated paths, guided less by neurological settings than cultural circumstance.”  So it is culture that shapes the parameters of our language, and culture is ever-changing. Sites like Twitter and Facebook (News - Alert) are the heralds announcing new players on our world stage.

What I want to know is, since when did we become word-prejudiced? I must have missed the memo that decided only words exceeding two syllables could be considered vital to our language, as sophisticated cornerstones of an elite vocabulary. What about poetic classics like haiku? Or masters of terse, unconventional language like Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut? Let alone wordsmiths like e.e. Cummings, Langston Hughes (News - Alert), and William Carlos Williams, whose concise language only enhanced the power of their message.

It might be more apt to say that Twitter encapsulates the evolution of language, rather than perpetrates its’ destruction. If you’re still looking for something to blame, you might realize the impossibility of this chicken-and-egg scenario. It would be nearly impossible to discern the origins of the abbreviations and acronyms dotting modern expressions. Was it text messaging? Or maybe even the Internet itself? Travel back to the days of dial up, when your entry to the online world was marked by abrasive, screeching tones and abrupt (undesired) exits courtesy an outside phone call. When AIM was the hottest new thing on the block. Isn’t that where “LOL” and “OMG” and their compatriots became symbolic of new times and a younger generation? As a Twitter critic, are you willing to boycott the Internet, in protest of this supposed destruction of our language?

Edited by Rich Steeves
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