Under the Green Desklamp…
When I was just a young Corporate Person, amongst the greatest formative influences on my impressionable little mind were the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. An interesting and little appreciated fact about Tolkien however is that he was not a writer by trade, but rather a linguistics scholar and professor of Old-English at the University of Oxford (Source).
It was his love of language, as well as his experiences in the trenches of WWI which informed his writing, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre will see the deep impact of his linguistic inclination etched into the very bones of Middle-earth.
Language is a powerful tool—one that defines our world and our relationships with others. In the article ‘The Metaphorical Imperative’, I expounded my idea about how the human ability for abstract thought, and the inherent search for meaning which naturally accompanies that ability, define us as animals. The combination provides us with an unending desire to explore and understand the world about us, while simultaneously giving us the tools to create answers to those very questions.
Language course is of an integral part of this equation. Our native language informs the way we interpret the world, and our thoughts are more-or-less bound by the linguistic constructs of the language or languages we speak.
Lately however, I feel a growing unease as I consider the direction that language is taking, and wonder about the implications this carries for society as a whole. I am referring to the decay of language easily evidenced by only a brief perusal of any internet message board or social network’s comments section. Obscure acronyms, lack of nuance, mutilated spellings, marred syntax, and a litany of other bastardizations of the English language will be the dominant form of expression almost anywhere you look.
It can become a depressing state of affairs, and if given sufficient consideration, might inspire in the reader a grave concern for the direction of society.
As a matter of context, let us consider the following scenario:
A young couple are out on their first date at an upscale Italian eatery. Shondra, 24, is a well-read academic hoping to find a stable partner as she starts out her own career. Ethan, 26, works from home, and spends the majority of his time honing his ‘memeing’ skills online. They sit now at a pristine table, a single candle providing ambiance in the dim room. Conversation buzzes all around them as diners enjoy their meal. Shondra and Ethan have just started their main course.
“Mmm, this pasta is really delicious,” says Shondra, a polite hand over her mouth as she finishes her initial helping of Chicken Linguini.
“Well, that’s just your opinion,” replies Ethan, shoveling another spoonful of Cannelloni into his mouth.
Shondra’s thinly drawn eyebrows furrow upon her pretty face. “That would be why I said it,” she replies. She isn’t entirely sure why Ethan felt motivated to highlight this fact, being that her voicing it obviated its being her opinion.
“Why do you say so?” She asks, hoping to gleam some deeper meaning from his statement of obvious facts.
“Because reasons,” Ethan answers, a wry smile on his face implying he felt this answer was both sufficient and witty. “Lol,” he finishes, as if to reinforce the embedded humour of this retort.
“So,” continues Shondra, undeterred by her mounting frustration. “What do you do in your downtime?”
Ethan flashes her a broad smile. “I like to RATIE all day.”
“Ratie?” Shondra asks, hoping Ethan might have some interesting new pastime with which she is as yet unacquainted.
“Yeah, Relax and take it Easy, duh.” Ethan sneers as he speaks, and forks another glob of pasta into his mouth. “This Cannelloni is amazing, its literally the best thing in the whole world.”
Shondra sighs. “Why didn’t you just say that, how could I have known that obscure acronym?
“And best thing in the world? I’m not sure you understand what ‘literally’ means.”
“I know right, how ironic!”
A tight frown mars Shondra’s pretty mouth. Suddenly, a gob of marinara sauce splatters into her face, causing her to howl in shock.
Ethan grins from ear to ear. “Trollololo!” He declares triumphantly.
Wiping it off with a fresh napkin, Shondra struggles to maintain her composure. “What the hell was that for?” She demands.
“YOLO,” comes Ethan’s response, “C’mon babe, I’ve got too much swag to have to justify myself, you need to calm down.”
“You’re acting like an ignorant cretin,” Shondra speaks in monotone.
“Cretin, more like epic, amirite?”
Shondra rises from the table now. “Ethan, this is clearly not going to work, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.” With that, she turns gracefully on her heel and makes her hasty exit.
Ethan is devastated. His mouth hangs open in shock, small drops of marinara falling down onto his ‘Affliction’ shirt. Setting his fork on the table, he sinks despondently down into his chair. “The feels…” he laments.
In this scene clearly, the stunted and overly specific language of the internet is entirely unfit for social situations. This is not the adaptive environment of such communication styles however, and due consideration must be given to where and when such conventions may be necessary.
For instance, being that online communication lacks the intonation inherent to verbal communication, some leeway may be given to the use of emoticons and clarifying abbreviations such as ‘j/k’ or ‘lol’.
Other conventions, such as the steadfast insistence on labelling every opinion as such no matter how obvious or redundant the label may be have arisen as a knee-jerk defenses to the volatile escalation so fostered in the anonymous confines of online communication.
Is this stylistic shift a hallmark of decaying culture and failing intellect, or is it a natural evolution of language resulting from our increasingly technological means of communicating, coupled with our busier schedules and lack of face-to-face contact?
Neither possibility should be dismissed out of hand. There can be little denial that language must evolve with the times. As new technologies and scientific or philosophical revelations change the way we view the world, language perforce needs to evolve in order to keep up.
So too with technologically driven changes in the way we communicate. Few would question the need to end a radio transmission with ‘over’, indicating to the other end that the line is now open for them to transmit.
Conversation over the internet is fundamentally different from other means of communication. It is detached, anonymous, and often responses come minutes, hours, or even days after the initial statement. With these challenges, the need for adaptive language is clear.
Still, many of the changes are hard to defend as strictly adaptive, and may be more so a product of the anonymity provided by online correspondence.
Is the internet becoming an unreadable mess? Is language and culture crumbling as people become less directly socially connected? Or is online communication actually an effective bridge between people, increasing social interaction—with language simply adapting to fit the needs of the new social environment?
What do you think? Please feel free to take up the discussion in the comments section—after all, ‘Divine Duty of Discourse’ is one of the 5 Central Commandments of The New Corporate Religion of Brad OH Inc.
-Brad OH Inc.