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  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 9:13 am on March 12, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammatically judgements, language change, literature, , newspapers, , text speak, , txt   

    Those narrow-minded, prescriptivist . . . texters? 

    Texting encourages us to be creative and unconstrained with our language, right? Traditional print media, fettered as they are by the bounds of Standard English, promote more rigid acceptability and grammaticality judgments, don’t they? Aren’t those prescriptivist editors and stodgy old style columnists just concerned with dictating how we speak and write?

    Not so says some new research from University of Calgary linguist Joan Lee.

    Lee’s Master’s thesis tested students with varying levels of exposure to text/instant messaging versus traditional media (newspapers, magazines, literature, nonfiction). She hypothesized that those with comparatively more exposure to the free-form nature of ‘text speak’ would be comparatively more lenient in their acceptance of novel and deviate forms of words, both morphological and orthographic. What she found was the opposite.  Students who had spent more time reading books and newspapers were more likely to judge novel words or deviate forms of words as acceptable. Those who had more exposure to text speak tended to be considerably more rigid and constrained in their acceptability judgments.

    This result is moderately mind-boggling. Think of all you know about texting and compare that to your expectations of the effects of traditional media on language use. From texters, we see such classics as ‘wot r u doin 2day‘ and ‘ur stoopid dood‘ and ‘kewl‘ and, perhaps best of all, kthxbai‘. There’s a bunch of research discussing why texters say and spell things like this. In the preview of her thesis linked above, Lee cites one such study that says people are trying to be playful, spontaneous, socially interactive, and even creative. Compare this to what you read in the New York Times, where there’s actually someone whowrites articles nitpicking the grammar of other traditional-print-media articles, including sometimes the NYTimes itself!

    I haven’t read the whole 150-page thesis yet, but it seems there are several plausible explanations for what’s going on. One idea is that for a novel form to be acceptable to texters, it must be a novel form commonly seen in text speak. So while there may not be the same types of grammatical constraints, there are conventions that are respected nonetheless. Or perhaps text speak is still free-form and not subject to constraints in the ways that traditional media might be, but free-formedness doesn’t actually equate with creativity. So while you’re tossing standardized grammar out the window, you’re not necessarily looking for the most precise, novel, creative word to express a given idea. You may be using words with odd morphology and spelling, but you’re probably not reaching deep into the dictionary to find those words. This means that readers of text speak don’t often see words they’re unfamiliar with and thus don’t often have to figure what those unfamiliar words might mean.

    If, on the other hand, you’re a big-time reader of traditional print media, you probably encounter unusual words all the time. To figure out what they mean, you either infer their meaning from context or use your knowledge of productive morphology like -ity or -ness. This could explain why texters are ok with ur andkthxbai and wot, but not some of the novel forms that Lee proposed in her study, like canality andgroundness. If you read and don’t text, the textisms may be ridiculous to you, but you might be able to come up with a meaning for canality and groundness that makes sense, and thus conclude they’re acceptable words.

    I’m sure much more will be said on this front in the near future. For now, I think it’s enough to note this interesting bit of research and sign off — TTYL, folks.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:00 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , language change, ,   

    Frenemy, pls refudiate haters 

    Posted by Sandeep

    Around every new year, I have fun looking at different dictionaries’ and publications’ lists of “the new words” of the year. Sociolinguistic commentators always have a field day around every January: Some loudly lament the decline of English, and others marvel at the flexibility of our language. Everyone seems to love a good invective against modern society—but why do we care about change in language so much?

    Natural systems are dynamic; any scientist will argue that. But most things man-made—from buildings to morals—strive to achieve an intrinsic stability. Nature fluctuates, but the concrete and the abstract of man-made creations are designed to be constant. Language, one of the most fundamentally human of characteristics, straddles this dichotomy. It is at once a natural system encoded into society and into the human brain—an ability to process and synthesize communicative gestures of the same species—as well as a synthetic system based on arbitrarily assigning sounds and symbols to the human experience.

    As such, language might be torn between natural drift and conscious shift in ways that no mathematical or historical model will ever be able to describe or predict.

    Amid this complexity, change in language—a perceived or documented shift in semantics, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or writing—has engaged humanity because it is associated with some of the most important elements of the human condition: culture, identity and the origin of man.

    We know at least some of the why of language change. Cultures attack, conquer and interact with one another. Language academies are created and maintained for the explicit purpose of standardizing written and spoken forms because there’s a historically and geographically universal perception that society in general and language in particular is falling precipitously from a refined past. Certain forms of grammar and vocabulary are stigmatized and others are praised; the same ones might be conversely mocked and admired by different groups. The inherent variability in the human experience, a necessary component for any change, allows that when different cultures interact, there is a productive exchange of ideas and language.

    This is all well and good. We can name what has happened and offer some explanations as to why these changes occurred. I have shown above that language is inconstant: This much every linguistics student knows. But if language is a man-made system, then it was created to be constant. Man works toward homeostasis.

    Language, ostensibly, arose because certain neural pathways more complex than those of our predecessors allowed for abstract thought and the use of symbols. This adaptive development allowed for complex social interactions and communication that made one Homo species more fit than another.

    And yet, as humans, we—by the same or different neural mechanisms—are capable of reflection on our behavior in a way that hasn’t been observed in other animals. So for the entire history of our species, where we are today is as much a product of natural forces as it is deliberate choice. Taken into context, if humans use language to communicate, and if language is useless without facilitating communication, then we ask why vocabulary isn’t finite and syntax isn’t fixed—this would seem to be the most effective way to ensure meaningful interaction. But the point is that it’s not.

    This problem has occupied researchers and still isn’t resolved—but will it ever be?

    It seems to me that change in language might be such a complex, multifaceted, multivariable process that we may never be able to understand how all of the forces work together in one whole, coherent way such that we’ll be able to competently describe or predict past and future change in every respect. Language is natural and synthetic and neither, and it displays trends characteristic of both and none. Human behavior, the human mind and human interactions are all inconceivably complex variables. Linguists might always be consigned to dividing up language change into neat parcels and analyzing the hell out of each. This might not be such a desperate thing to do.

    As long as we recognize that the entirety of language change defies conclusive explanation, we can concern ourselves with functional explanations of certain trends in a way that is useful and productive.

    Even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms and processes of language change, it would be silly to believe that our language is declining: It’s difficult to objectively characterize any change as degradation. We’re not moving toward some end-goal, no matter what sort of a harbinger the “texting generation” is. The truth is that every generation has always experienced language change and called it decline. Change is just change.

    As far as I’m concerned, the “new words of the year” lists are only useful in reminding me how woefully square (we’re still using that word, right?) I am.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on January 13, 2011.)

     
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