Is language dead or evolving?

Some see the use of shorthand and abbreviated text as the beginning of the end. But studies say students know the difference between formal writing and instant messaging.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / June 16, 2008

Doomsday grammarians are not in the mood to LOL. They worry that a language apocalypse is approaching, triggered by a new wave of technological pidgin.

For decades, they say, language has been sliding toward increased informality, but as online chatting and cellphone text-messaging have become major channels of communication, they have seen signs of doom.

A recent survey, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that a quarter of teenagers sprinkled emoticons like the well-worn smiley face into schoolwork, while twice as many flouted capitalization and punctuation rules.

College composition textbooks are beginning to warn students against using text-message or chat-room lingo in formal writing.

And William Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, a journal of high school history essays, draws an analogy to the obesity epidemic: Technology's snack-size communiques are feeding an overall decline in people's ability to communicate clearly.

But others are not so quick to write the obituary for coherent language.

A growing body of research shows electronic communications channels like instant messaging have created a kind of semi-speech - language that is between talking and writing. Some say it is evidence of evolution, not of decay.

"Languages are always changing, and that's a fact that language snobs need to get over and accept - because the only language that doesn't change is a dead language, like Latin," said Derek Denis, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Toronto. This spring, he coauthored a study comparing the way teens speak and chat online. It was published in the journal American Speech.

Denis's study, "Linguistic Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language," followed the online and spoken conversations of 71 Canadian teens over three years, tracking about one million IM words and 250,000 spoken words.

Contrary to the view that abbreviations and cute emoticons are at the radical edge of English language, the researchers found that the hybrid of written and spoken language is actually more conservative than speech alone.

For instance, the Pew study included a finding likely to make any teacher or parent say OMG: 38 percent of students used an instant message contraction such as LOL in schoolwork. But the American Speech study concluded that such abbreviations appear rarely, even in their natural habitat of instant-messaging conversations.

The most common short IM colloquialism to appear in online chats of 70 students was "haha," which made up only 1.47 percent of the total word count. LOL - short for "laugh out loud" - came in second, at 0.41 percent of total word count. Teens wrote out "you" 21,491 times; they used "u" 2,020 times.

The American Speech report also backs up earlier work by Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University and author of "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World."

Baron studied college students' instant-message conversations and found that IM abbreviations were rare, contractions were less common than expected, and that when it came to emoticons, students seemed to have a stunted vocabulary.

"You see [students' instant messaging] and you say, 'Oh my goodness, this writing is affecting what happens in classroom language, which will affect the norm,' " Baron said, but interviews and studies indicate students consider the two types of communication to be distinct from each other - even if they occasionally slip a word from one language into the other.

A young person in any era who slips words like "cool," "daddy-o," or "OMG" into a string of otherwise proper English has not necessarily forgotten how to converse, said Rich Ling, a sociologist at the Norwegian telecommunications firm Telenor who has studied text-messaging language.

"The rise of the Internet and mobile telephone have been really dramatic things," Ling said, and children who grew up in a technological climate use those tools while establishing their identities.

Still, abbreviations and emoticons can be red flags. Some people say cellphones and IM reinforce what had already been going on: People are doing less proofreading and putting more emphasis on getting a message out than crafting it well.

But others see fads easily corrected by a teacher's warning, and say technology could be used by educators as positive force.

For example, students already do much of their communication through writing - whether it is on IM, text messages, a Facebook wall, or in e-mail. It may not be much of a stretch to transfer such efforts to a school essay.

"Ask students to write an essay by discussing things online, and don't tell them that it is an essay," said Nick Carbone, director of new media at the college publisher Bedford/St. Martin's. Ideas for a first draft might rise out of the comment stream on a blog or an IM exchange about an academic topic, he said.

And while skeptics focus on jumbles of acronyms or the use of emoticons, taking a reactionary tack might be equally damaging to communication.

"There are a handful of students who try to be very formal - they have Facebook and everything else, but in writing they try to sound academic," Carbone said. "Their writing is very stiff."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

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