Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chat room speech, informality, and language

Anne Pleshette Murphy and Jennier Allen have a story “Webspeak: The Secret Language of Teens” at ABC’s Good Morning America site;
the story was broadcast on January 25, 2007. The report maintains that the abbreviated words and slang are showing up in term papers and even college admissions.

Languages, as they get older, tend to become simplified. English does not pay as much attention to endings with conjugation and with adjectival agreement as do many other languages. On the other hand, English is filled with odd spellings (because of words coming from multiple sources), and idioms. Most Romance and Germanic languages have stricter conjugation rules for subjunctive mood than does English, so sometimes it is easier in these languages to distinguish fact from supposition, a concept with potential legal consequences. On the other land, Chinese apparently has no grammar at all and depends a lot on pitch. The old Basque language has only nouns and verbs.

Elaborate rules of grammar, however, give a language an advantage in some cases. It is easier to be very clear about what a sentence means, even out of context. Judges (as in the COPA case, to which I am a party) are already expressing concern about the legal consequences of “implicit content” with respect to material self-posted on the Internet.

Teens, of course, find simplicity and directness of speech to be “cool.” This has become most evident in chat rooms and in text messages. Over time, will this have an effect on what is acceptable in standard written communication? Maybe.

I have been “guilty” of this in my own books. In Chapter 2 of my first DADT book, as I prepare a discussion of student deferments from the military draft in the Vietnam era, I write at one point:

"Algebra invokes the manipulation of symbols as surrogates for numbers or objects. As a child, it had sounded like a great mystery, doing arithmetic or `figuring' with `letters' rather than numbers. Some people never understand the abstraction, and stay back at the grade school level where you never do your `number work' in ink."

A reviewer picked out and criticized this passage. First, taken literally, “algebra” is in apposition to the word “child” whereas I had intended “as” to be an idiomatic contraction for “when I was a …” It got past the proofreader, and this is "almost" acceptable today, at least in speech. With the preposition “to” the sentence could not be misread. The reviewer also complained about the abrupt switch to second person. That was intended to be informal, because “you” is often used in an impersonal way as if it were really third person. (In French, “vous” serves that purpose in place of “tu” sometimes.) The clause was supposed to a reference to what it felt like to be a kid doing math in grade school in the 50s.

Students should always prepare their academic papers in formal English. (Therefore, the cited paragraph would read "When I was a child ... " and later "when students never do arithmetic in ink.") However, some informality in books of a personal nature can be effective and make convey the author's feelings, as he or she experienced things, seem more real.

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