Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Twitter, and the "bastardisation" of language

People decry Twitter (and similar mediums, like SMS) for bastardising language, for dropping the tone of our conversations, for removing the complexity of points that can’t be made under 140 characters. They’re all pretty debatable, but either way, I’ve noticed that it has its advantages.

For example, if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written you know that my sentences tend to be very long, and very verbose. I use contractions, but generally less of them than most people do. I use big words. I get uppity about precise sentence structures. I often have long, comma- and parenthesis-ridden sentences, which very often stitch together into Big Wall o’ Text paragraphs (although I’ve learned to edit a lot of that out, and am suddenly aware that this sentence is the worst example of it in the essay). I am obsessive about properly qualifying my statements so that I don’t overgeneralise, or oversell information from a dubious source.

This isn’t just something I turn on when I get into University essay mode, either; it’s pretty much an aspect of my everyday parlance. Indeed, I use the word “parlance” in everyday parlance. And “indeed.” And it’s not, if I’m honest, a great habit. I don’t really care if I sound up myself, but it occasionally makes my writing harder to understand than is strictly necessary. Which isn’t good, because clarity is paramount, and the ostensible reason I use big words and precise grammar is to avoid ambiguity.

But Twitter doesn’t allow this. To use examples from a Tweet I composed just before I wrote the first draft of this piece, “I did apply” becomes “I applied”. “I did have a few…” becomes “Had a few…” Indeed, “a few” becomes “some” - when you prattle on like me, a difference of one character can mean the difference between finishing your sentence and not finishing it.

Even though they tend to be longer than the standards, I still very often find myself overusing words or phrases (you might’ve noticed a few of my favourites in this essay alone). One of the first things they teach you in any writing course is to vary your sentences - don’t always say the same thing in the same way. Mix things up, phrase things differently. Twitter forces you to do this. It’s breaking my habits of using the same old phrases over and over again, instead making me communicate in the most economical way possible. It allows you to see more clearly what is necessary, and what is just garnish, in longer pieces of writing.

One of the things I love about language, and English in particular, is the subtle differences in meaning between what are, on first glance, synonyms. And knowing which word precisely captures the feeling I’m trying to evoke is one of my favourite things about writing - and reading, for that matter. But with harshly limited media such as Twitter, for the first time I’m being forced to consider what’s “good enough” - what will get the job done with the minimum number of characters. To put it another way, for a long time I’d been learning how to differentiate between synonyms, but now I’m learning how to group them together.

The other thing is, it allows me to sharpen my verbal language skills - my brain likes text a lot better than the spoken word, and it struggles a bit with casual sentence structures sometimes. And the shortened, relaxed sentences of Twitter match oral conversations a lot more closely than most other text. And I don’t want to get into the whole descriptivist vs prescriptivist thing here, but basically: whether I like that kind of talk or not is irrelevant, because if I want to live in a society I have to deal with it. Maybe not such an advantage to other people, but still.

Similarly, the much-increased frequency with which initialisms are used in chatspeak trains your brain to recognise them. I don’t know about anyone else, but after years of ROFLMAOs and AFAIKs I find it easier to figure out what acronyms I encounter in the real world stand for.

Of course, if Twitter and mediums like it became the only way we communicated, the language might deteriorate into TaLKn lYk diS wit my BOIIIIII, at which point I would want to kill myself and everyone around me. Don’t mistake this post for a defence of people who type like that.

But since Twitter and its ilk are never going to completely take over, the restriction provides a useful opportunity to play with language, and test the limits of our vocabulary and speech patterns, in a way that traditional media never did. And that’s something we should be pleased about.

No comments:

Post a Comment