Monday, November 16, 2009

Miscellaneous: History of the English Language Final Paper

This is a paper I wrote for an English (History of the English Language) course. It was kind of a dull course, but I had fun with the final assignment, which was to write a paper on a chosen aspect of the English language.

My topic was Internet-speak. I'd like to copy-paste it here so you can have an idea of what my What is Wrong with Today's Youth section is going to be like. I will (hopefully) write a follow up post about popular Internet expressions and abbreviations, but this will have to do for now.

PS: Ignore the references. I wasn't able to copy-paste them.
PPS: The paper is titled Newspeak for the 21st Century: An Orwellian Prophecy Come True?

Newspeak, coined in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four, is described as “the only language in the world whose language gets smaller every year.” While Newspeak as Orwell envisioned it did not become a reality, the Internet and instant messaging programs are gradually bringing to life another term in the Orwellian dictionary: duckspeak, which means to speak without thinking—or, rather, given the context, ducktype may be more appropriate.

The origin of Internet-speak, or Internet slang, dates back to the Jargon File from 1975, a compilation of hacker slang organized by Raphael Finkel. Finkel’s compilation included terms from technical cultures such as the MIT AI Lab and the Stanford AI lab.1 While some of the document’s original jargon was based on a construction that had at least some semblance of respectability, with some terms cleverly employing computer jargon (such as the “P” convention, which turns a word into a question by use of the letter “P”—a Boolean-valued convention, e.g. “yes-p?”), later additions yielded the hackneyed abbreviations familiar to all those who frequently use the Internet today: “lol” for “laughing out loud,” “lmao” for “laughing my ass off,” and “rotfl” for “rolling on the floor [and] laughing.” Unfortunately, uncreative ways to express oneself with abbreviations are not limited to those of mirth; other notable abbreviations in Internet-speak include “wtf” for “what the f***” and “stfu” for “shut the f*** up.”

Internet-speak has, since, been perceived by some to be an assault on the English language by technology. On the other hand, some argue that Internet jargon is not detrimental to the English language. Those in the latter category consist of either teachers who view use of instant messaging jargon as a helpful way to encourage today’s youth to write or the very adolescents who frequently use instant messaging programs. 2

Unfortunately, both groups are mistaken: teachers advocating the use of Internet jargon for educational means are unaware that its habitual use may contribute to the “bastardization”3 of the English language, and it is safe to assume that adolescents are mistaken because they are mistaken about nearly everything4 and possess neither the patience nor discipline to express a thought via the Internet without butchering words (e.g. “b4” for “before”) and laying waste to even the most fundamental rules of grammar.

In defense of their use of “lol” and “wtf,” today’s teenagers, those hormonally charged infidels—non-believers of typing any word exceeding three letters, that is— will argue that they are capable of switching between Internet jargon and Standard English, a belief Leila Christenberry, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, states as “…the difference between how you would dress to go out on Saturday night versus how you dress when you do yard work.”5

Unfortunately, what Christenberry does not know is that college students nowadays often show up to their morning classes in their pajamas; her analogy for code-switching, the alternation between two languages or dialects (a phenomenon observed, for example, between Ebonics and Standard English),6 does not always hold true when applied to Internet jargon and Standard English. There is evidence of the former encroaching on the latter, as seen by the alarming incidence in which young school children substitute “u” for “you” in their schoolwork and attempt to shorten words by introduction of numbers (e.g. “b4” for “before”).7 Inclusion of such jargon occurs because adolescents are so accustomed to instant messaging and its fast-paced conversational style that they may unconsciously use Internet-speak in their assignments.

Making matters worse, frequent use of Internet jargon may result in desensitization not only to the conventions of grammar and spelling, but also to tone. The fast-paced nature of conversations via the Internet is not conducive to the conveying of emotion, save for those expressed with a handful of abbreviations or symbols, such as “wtf” to express outraged confusion and “=)” to represent a smile, that teenagers often substitute for real communication. Such truncated language provides abbreviations that are generalizations for a plethora of words and, thereby, blinds its users so that they gradually ignore the nuances in vocabulary that so enrich the English language.

A notable culprit of shrinking vocabulary is “lol,” an abbreviation originally used to express laughter. The use of “lol” has grown to encompass even expressions of amusement and has now become a lazy method teenagers use to respond to, well, just about anything—Uncyclopedia jokingly remarks that “lol” can even be used when “someone tells you they are undergoing cancer treatment.”8

It seems that teachers have been assigning vocabulary lists to no avail; forget “elated” and “jubilant”—an “lol” will suffice for just about anything. Arguably, while words like “jubilant” are not commonly used in speech (anyone who says “I am jubilant” is bound to be observed in the same manner one eyes a peculiar species of amphibian or reptile), the frequent use of “lol” as a multi-purpose response may nonetheless eventually render its abusers’ vocabularies debilitated and, later, even mortally wounded—which is why the vast majority of teenagers sound, in writing, like robots with a primitive sense of humor (at best).

Another issue of concern is that the frequent use of Internet jargon may, like gateway drugs, encourage more serious offenses, such as the substitution of words with symbols altogether. Such shortcuts in writing have been observed by teachers who have noticed that students may, when writing papers, use symbols for a frowning face to indicate disagreement and, conversely, draw smiling faces to represent agreement or approval.9 Unfortunately, as teenagers become increasingly accustomed to the fast-paced style of communication via instant messaging, they become lazier and less willing to spend time writing sentences— and may even do away with words altogether.

Unlike bed wetting or an uncontrollable libido, abuse of language by means of Internet-speak is not something one eventually outgrows; Internet-speak infested English cannot be attributed solely to adolescent idiocy. A business news report by Sam Dillon, published in 2004 and aptly titled with the quip What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence, revealed shocking statistics obtained from a survey of 120 American companies: that “a third of the nation’s blue chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much $3.1 billion annually on remedial training,” a loss that Sean Phillips, a recruitment director in Silicon Valley, attributes to the fact that the world is becoming “more technological and global.”10 Many adults in the survey were observed to have problems ranging from lack of clarity to tone-deafness in writing—certain employees were even unaware that they had “allowed a hostile tone to creep into the letters.”11

Such problems have likely been caused by fast-paced communication necessitated by a busy work schedule; in their rush to communicate, such employees have found Internet-speak a solution—the letter “u” for “you,” the letters “ur” for “you’re” to shave seconds off of countless E-mails—but are unaware of the consequences such truncated communication may engender.

The advent of any technology to facilitate communication has always, for better or for worse, influenced writing. Gutenberg’s printing press made it possible to print books more cheaply, thereby making them more accessible. The telephone dealt a crippling blow against letter writing, that dodo bird method of communication eventually finished off with an overwhelming coup de grĂ¢ce by the Internet’s very own right and left hand men: instant messaging and E-mail. Certain changes—books for the populace, dialing up sweethearts, and a reduced reliance on angry postmen—are for the better.

On the other hand, by-products of convenient communication via the Internet such as the violation of grammar, the shrinking of vocabulary, and the inability to produce decent writing should be seen as assaults on the English language and as deterrents to creativity and emotion as expressed on paper (or the computer screen, for that matter). If such issues are not reason enough to be genuinely concerned about Internet-speak, consider again the money spent on remedial training to rectify poor writing habits: $3.1 billion US dollars (and that simply accounts for 120 companies).

It is almost as if adolescent blunders—broken bones, abortions, the USA PATRIOT Act (which I have long suspected to have been both named and enforced by children who have had more than their fair share of spewing banal acronyms online) and, now, Internet-speak—were not costly enough already.

The scariest thing about Internet-speak? No Big Brother is enforcing the shrinking of vocabulary this time around; Internet-speak addicts are imposing the restriction of thought upon themselves. Well, that and George Orwell is probably spinning in his grave.

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