The Future of Language

There is hope for the English language, in spite of the new media filled with acronyms, misspelled words, and slang. This was the underlying message from Sali Tagliamonte, professor of linguistics, at the University of Toronto, during a lecture for parents of first-year students at Trinity College yesterday.

From the moment she began her talk, describing her own four kids who type with lightening speed and have private conversations over their phones and computers, I felt a certain kinship with Tagliamonte. My two daughters have refused to “be friends” with me on Facebook, and I constantly feel as if their friends are interrupting my conversations with them, as they type away on their phones with dextrous fingers.

“We don’t have access to their world,” explained Tagliamonte, referring to teens’ text talk, Facebook messages, and, more specifically, their Internet language, a hybrid form that she says is a mix of both oral and written language.

E-mail, the oldest computer-mediated communication (CMC) set the stage for this new and mysterious language in the 1970’s, and still tends to be most like traditional English with the lowest frequency of acronyms and short forms. It’s also eschewed by young people, who now see it as an “old person way to communicate.”

Internet Messaging, which emerged in 2006, features short, chunked sentences and in her research, Tagliamonte has found that it is, like E-mail, already old.
The most popular form of CMC for young people today, is texting on phones, which offers one-to-one capabilities. It also reflects diverse new language patterns that Tagliamonte says are changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up. Among these changes is the increased use of intensifiers such as so, really, and pretty. (He is so awesome, this is so boring.) Short forms and acronyms—gr8, u, ttyl, lol, np, haha—are also sprinkled throughout conversations studied by Tagliamonte, who found that the vast majority of acronyms used are variations of laughter.

Tagliamonte also discovered that that actual rate of use of acronyms was quite small, and she reminded parents that children have grown up surrounded by acronyms developed by our generation—DVD, TV, CIBC. She also found in essays, that students who used acronyms liberally in text conversations, wrote quite well with full sentences and correct spelling.

Still, she pointed out that our language has changed significantly from Shakespeare’s time, when ‘shall’ was commonly used, and it will continue to evolve, with the word choices we make defining our different generations.
In essays, the phrase, ‘going to’, is the norm, she explained. “But in Internet Messaging, this becomes, ‘gonna’, and in SMS texting, it’s, ‘Imma’.

“There is a structural continuum of forms and patterns,” says Tagliamonte. “And there is stability in grammar in spite of the new media.”

As a writer, avid reader, and a mother of three, I was relieved by Tagliamonte’s findings. Yes, students have created a new language, but they still respect and adhere to the basic tenets of English. This means, hopefully, they’ll continue to read the classics, and will continue to write so that we “older people” can understand what they mean, at least part of the time.

But I still can’t get into their social conversations; their world is still a mystery to me, and I don’t see that changing. Ever. All I can do is ban their phones from meals, and maybe invent a few middle-age acronyms to keep them in the dark.

MAA (Middle-age Acronyms)
1. KOS (kid over shoulder)
2. OMAB (oh my aching back)
3. DA (doctor’s appointment)
4. VT (very tired)
5. TAN (taking a nap)
–Shelly Sanders
Sanders’ first book—Rachel’s Secret—will be published by Second Story Press in the spring, 2012. Sanders is also a freelance writer with articles in Maclean’s, Reader’s Digest, the Toronto Star, and Canadian Living.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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