U Suck@Words: Textspeak Isn’t Bad English

Hello dearest readers! It’s been a long two weeks, and I have missed you. I know, I know, I said that I wouldn’t be around for the month of November, but I finished my 50,000 words of novel yesterday and clearly I have more writing in me, so I’m back. You can’t get rid of me that easily. We won’t be back to fully scheduled programming for a bit yet, but I should be posting semi-regularly. Now onwards, to blogging!

A couple weeks ago an article about textspeak caught my eye. Slate had reprinted an answer from Quora to the question “will textspeak ever replace standard English?” The answer was an emphatic no, the reason being that it’s too hard to read textspeak (and thus it wastes time), and forcing language to change is nearly impossible. Changing wholesale over to textspeak would be like forcing everyone to learn a new language and no one wants to do that, so standard English (which is better for you because it has more extra content to make it easier to process) will always be the English we use.

There are so many things wrong with this answer that I’m astounded Slate even bothered to publish it. The main thrust of the piece is that because the author finds it difficult to read textspeak quickly, no one else will ever want to use it and it will never catch on with society at large. There’s an elitist undertone to a lot of this that rings of ageism: no educated person who knows what mistakes are wants to read something riddled with mistakes. They’d have to stop and fix it all in their brain!

He imperiously states “My eyes stopping to read each word will strain me to no end. That’s the reason why you will get a lot of hate for using textspeak in front of a learned crowd.”

What he really means is that older people who aren’t used to textspeak will get angry when you force them to try something different, even if it is entirely natural to you and contains no mistakes according to the rules of this dialect. As per usual, when a non-linguist feels the need to grace us all with their opinion about language, we get the conviction that standard English is Right, and other dialects are Wrong, and everyone should adjust themselves to standard English because it is inherently better.

Viswanathan even goes so far as to compare textspeak to fat because it holds too much information in too short of a space. This makes so very much sense when there are languages that don’t even write out their vowels, or languages where entire words are a single character that get comprehended without any difficulty. Not. Of course if Viswanathan were right and having extra letters was really helpful for reading, then we wouldn’t have contractions, or language change that shortens words, or abbreviations. Language tends to change in cycles: certain words will get shorter and shorter as speakers are lazier and lazier, but when speakers want to use the language creatively to express new things or stronger emotions, it tends to grow larger to accommodate that. It’s part of an entirely natural linguistic cycle for speakers to be adjusting the way they write and speak so that it’s more convenient and efficient.

It’s an arbitrary defense of his personal preferences, couched in an excuse as to why the standard is better (I’ll give you a hint about why he thinks that: it’s because it’s associated with money, power, whiteness, and success, not because it has any awesome properties).

And of course, of course this piece of prescriptivist nonsense has to include all the reasons why language can’t change, why language changing is bad bad bad, why no one will ever accept language change! Entirely truthfully, he points out that attempts to standardize or change language in the past have failed miserably. Similarly, artificial introductions of new words into the lexicon haven’t done so well either. He spends about two sentences contemplating why this might be, and comes to the brilliant conclusion that “People simply loved the existing language so much”. Also it takes too long to rewrite books (because apparently it’s impossible for us to read books written in older dialects. Like that Shakespeare guy. Nobody reads him anymore).

Of course the reason language reform doesn’t work isn’t because people love their language too much it’s because language change happens organically. “People like the way it is for a number of reasons—tradition and culture, for instance. Of course, there will be an addition and deletion of a few words, but nothing too drastic.” AHAHAHAHAHA ok, how bout you go read some Beowulf for me then. Oh what’s that? None of the words are the same and the grammar structure contains things you’ve never heard of? Could it be that languages change both in drastic and small ways over time? Could it be that this person’s conviction that textspeak is horrible has no grounding in any linguistic study whatsoever?

Over time it’s highly likely that textspeak will become more incorporated into our daily lexicon because many people have found a use for it. Younger people don’t read the changes as errors because they have grown up with it, and the easier it becomes for users to rely on a particular usage or structure, the more it will be adopted into the language. It’s like any other language change, including slang or spelling changes that happen organically or new words being introduced or new constructions or verbing nouns and adjectifying verbs. These processes are natural and will happen whether older generations find them easy to adapt to or not. Young people are always changing language in ways that older speakers find weird, but those older people did the exact same thing when they were young because language is a living thing that grows and adapts to the needs of those who use it.

In all likelihood, some elements of text speak will stick around and some will drift away like other language fads. No one can really predict what will or won’t, and that’s entirely ok as long as we can still communicate.

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