Is Twitter Destroying the English language?

Coming out of the NITLE seminar on Undergraduate Research in Digital Humanities, my title question was one of the more interesting questions on my mind.  Janis Chinn, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, posed this question as a motivation for her research on shifts in linguistic register on Twitter.  I’m a recent convert to Twitter and see it as an interesting communication tool, but also an information network aggregator.  I don’t really worry about whether twitter is eroding my ability to write traditional academic prose, but then, I’ve inhabited that prose for so long its more the case that I can’t easily adapt to the more restrictive conventions of twitter.  And while I do think students are putting twitterisms in their papers, I don’t take this as specifically different than the tendency of students to use speech patterns as the basis for constructing their papers, and not recognizing the different conventions of academic prose.  So twitter poses some interesting issues, but not issues that strike me as different in kind from other kinds of language uses.

I gather from the website for her project that Janis is only at the beginning of her research and hasn’t developed her findings yet, but it looks like a fascinating study.  Part of her description of the work is as follows:

Speakers shift linguistic register all the time without conscious thought. One register is used to talk to professors, another for friends, another for close family, another for one’s grandparents. Linguistic register is the variety of language a speaker uses in a given situation. For example, one would not use the same kind of language to talk to one’s grandmother as to your friends. One avoids the use of slang and vulgar language in an academic setting, and the language used in a formal presentation is not the language used in conversation. This is not just a phenomenon in English, of course; in languages like Japanese there are special verbs only used in honorific or humble situations and different structures which can increase or decrease the politeness of a sentence to suit any situation. This sort of shift takes place effortlessly most of the time, but relatively new forms of communication such as Twitter and other social media sites may be blocking this process somehow.

In response to informal claims that the current generation’s language is negatively affected by modern communication tools likeTwitter, Mark Liberman undertook a brief analysis comparing the inaugural addresses of various Presidents. This analysis can be found on University of Pennsylvania‘s popular linguistics blog “Language Log”. Remarkably, he found a significant trend of shortening sentence and word lengths over the last 200 years. My research, while not addressing this directly, will demonstrate whether using these services affects a user’s ability to shift linguistic registers to match the situation as they would normally be expected to.

Fascinating question in and of itself. I think on some level I’ve always been deeply aware of these kinds of shifts.  As I kid when my parents were missionaries in New Guinea, I would speak with an Aussie accent while I was with kids at the school across the valley, which shifting back in to my Okie brogue on the mission field and in my house.  And as I made my way in to academe my southern and southwesternisms gradually dropped away with a very few exceptions–aware as I was that my accent somehow did not signal intelligence and accomplishment.  Mockery of southern white speech remains a last bastion of prejudice in the academy generally.  I don’t think these are the kinds of register shifts Janis is looking at, but same territory.

I’m also more interested in the general motive questions.  If we could prove that Twitter inhibited the ability to shift registers, would that count as destroying or damaging the language in some sense?  If we could demonstrate that Twitter was leading people to use shorter and shorter sentences–or to be less and less able to comprehend sentences longer than 160 characters.  Would this signal an erosion in the language.  We must have some notion that language can be used in more effective and less effective ways since we are all very aware that communication can fail abysmally or succeed beyond our hopes, and usually ends up somewhere in-between.  Does the restricted nature of Twitter limit or disable some forms of effective communication, while simultaneously enabling others.  These are interesting questions.  I’m sure more intelligent people than I am are working on them.

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4 thoughts on “Is Twitter Destroying the English language?

  1. It find that is quite difficult to maintain a more formalized standard of English primarily because there seems to be no appreciation of the skill of writing.

    Conversations via online chats tend to be curt, frank and, utterly disjointed in terms of thoughts. There are constantly assumptions made in the conversation that leave one bewildered by the various layers of depth that they must unravel for a conversation to go forward.

    Twitter is an interesting area, primarily because it is so interesting to see how people shorthand their thoughts and how people interpret the said shorthand.

    • I’m waiting until I’m a little more acclimated to Twitter, but it seems to me that twitter needs to be understood as a blending of conversation and citation. Much of what I get out of it is when conversations are circulating around a longer article elsewhere on the web. You build a persona by passing along what your find important along with short comments as to why it is important. It’s not a debate or argument format so much. I’ve also found a few twitters who I think are just very good at aphoristic statements limited to the character max. Alain de Botton is one and Teju Cole another. @alaindebotton and @tejucole respectively.

  2. Great post, Peter. As I am from Texas, I too, have put away most of my southern colloquillisms to keep my Californian wife from chastising me. A few still slip out especially when I am with my brothers or sisters.
    I am not concerned that Twitter will change English. Language is always evolving and we should expect there to be changes with time. Look at where we have come from the King James’ English.

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