There is no greater reminder of my intellectual devolution than my high school annotations. As I flip through the pile of neon Post-it Notes decorating my three-year-old copy of “Frankenstein,” I am confronted by the words that were once frequent guests in my writing: “polysemy,” “duplicity,” “sycophant” and my personal favorite, “quotidian.” They were summer camp words — words you take on every adventure and grow attached to for a few weeks, before inevitably falling apart sooner than you expect. And each time you’re reminded of the time spent with these words, you recognize how you’ve grown while grieving over the loss of your youthful potential.
As ironic as it sounds coming from a writer, I’ve always liked analyzing words more than stories: I like reading poems more than novels, the clever quips of comedy more than the heavy plots of drama, and, to be honest, I like editing more than writing. While my fascination with words and grammar may have stemmed from the validation of elementary-age spelling bees and vocabulary tests, the text used on the internet has significantly furthered my interest in linguistics.
In February 2013, linguist John McWhorter hosted a TED Talk about the development of textspeak as an extension of spoken language. When we text — or construct a tweet or caption a photo or any of the other forms of internet writing — we do it in a way that reflects a real casual conversation. He uses the archetypal non-laughing “lol” as an example of these written conversation markers, as well as using “slash” to change the subject (something I may be too young to remember).
His final argument defends the informality of textspeak, primarily its lack of concern for the traditional rules of English grammar: “No one thinks about capital letters or punctuation when one texts,” he states, “but then again, do you think about those things when you talk?” I would argue, however, that our generation has not ignored these formalities in our texts. Rather, we’ve developed our own set of rules. And these rules are able to convey intention and emotion in a way “formal English” cannot.
Take capital letters, for example. If I text you in all lowercase letters, chances are, we’re good friends and we’re around the same age. Texting with correct capitalization is too formal — if I was trying to send an email, I would. And as we all learned from the 2017 “Mocking Spongebob” meme, alternating capitalization within the same word (LiKe tHiS), can even capture changes in vocal inflection without any voice being present.
These changes become even more intentional with punctuation. Perhaps the lack of punctuation in text started as a result of just simply not thinking about it, but now a period at the end of the sentence isn’t a symbol of neutrality — it’s a sign of anger or disappointment.
The list continues: extra letters in words convey flirtiness or friendliness (would you rather have your crush text you “hey” or “heyy”?); tildes (more popularly known as “squigglies”) can emphasize a hidden meaning of an action (“did you guys talk or did you ~talk~?”); a series of commas may replace ellipses to convey a pause without suspense (“I guess I’m just,,, confused?”); and among the most frequent Twitter users, asterisks will be used to censor words we’re simply embarrassed about (“I have an ec*n class tomorrow”).
Of course, emojis and acronyms have adopted new meanings — the crying emoji and skull emoji, for example, are my favorite ways of reacting to a funny message. Yet, these emojis and slang terms already have their own meanings, they’re just changing over time and usage. This is a normal part of formal language as well, such as how “terrific” once meant something more like “terrifying.” It is rare, though, to see grammatical markers carry meaning within themselves.
While this may seem like common sense to anyone under the age of thirty, it is fascinating that we’ve developed a new set of unspoken rules about these centuries-old symbols, rules that aren’t followed to be perfect but to more precisely capture the way we would say the message at hand. The ability to accurately emote through written symbols alone isn’t necessarily anything novel (that’s what hieroglyphics and, well, emojis are, right?), but the way in which we’ve manipulated preexisting symbols — not words — to mean something other than they were intended to, to display feelings, is astounding.
As any lexicographer will tell you, language isn’t about having an extensive or impressive vocabulary. It’s about communication. So even though I may be losing touch with my summer camp words, I’m in touch with a far more important emotional maturity. After all, talking about the “duplicity” of your best friend’s cheating boyfriend won’t make you sound intelligent, it will just make you sound insensitive to their situation. Granted, there is a time and place for 14-letter thesaurus words as much as there is one for the random capitalization of letters. But only the latter shows how we’ve mastered written text beyond replicating speech and into replicating emotion.
-Skyler Graham, Recess editor
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