Twitterlitterate: The Evolution of Language in the Online Era

EDible News: Mike Gyssels, Staff Writer

Hidden within the riddling lines of James Joyce’s 1939 masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, (that idiosyncratic spelling is a small joke, for those (un)familiar with the text) is an urgent call to preserve the literacy of our little ones in the face of the festering mass of perpetual, torrential information that is the Internet. The famous Irish novelist begs us to hear the “twattering of the bards in the twitterlitter” (37). This almost-nonsensical phrase, I think, will speak to more of you (and on more levels) than Joyce could ever have expected when writing his book of the night. First, the phrase is utterly incomprehensible: what is the “twitterlitter?” Sure, now we feel that there’s a significant mound of cat feces accumulating behind a particular URL (or two, or three), but in Oxford English the word means nothing. And likewise, the common perception is that much of what gets said on Twitter means nothing. Moreover, this 1939 phrase in 2015 English reflexively belittles itself: it is itself a little bit of “twattering” by a bird / bard that makes much less sense than it intends. It makes fun of poor writing with “poor” writing. Of course, I’m taking this quote wholly out of context from a masterwork that really does have a higher purpose, but again, in that out-of-context nature we’re drawn back again to Twitter’s 140-character atmospheric blasts.

Tweets are “flashes in the pan.” They are brief, strained glimpses into the minds of news reporters, field experts, teenagers, and even some self-proclaimed Internet poets. Both because of and in spite of these drawbacks, Twitter appears to be the most maligned, yet most prevalently (mis)used “internet teaching tool” available to the modern educator—but, ironically, kids are not the target demographic for Twitter. The reasons why Twitter is less successful with teens than other platforms is another question entirely. Regardless, over 60% of Snapchat’s users are 18-24; 28% percent of Instagram users falls into this category; and then even fewer use Twitter (Source). Rather, a recent study found that of the adults using twitter, over 50% of them are college educated. It seems that while Twitter is maligned for its destruction of the English language and its effects on the ‘ADHD minds’ of Millenials (and their youngers) Twitter actually works, in large part, the way it’s supposed to. Twitter is about dissemination of links and news as quickly as possibly. Thus, while teachers seem to think students are tweeting nasty information about one another, the ephemerality of something like Twitter means that things are often not in one place long enough to really take hold.

Sure, rumours can blow up, but Twitter is largely about social events and popular interest—rapidly changing and perpetually relevant as things happen. Thus, it’s tough for Twitter to become a discussion platform the way that teachers generally intend it to be. Discussions via twitter are terribly disjointed: one must chase links across the blogosphere trying to understand to what a series of tweets might be referring. Moreover, any sustained interest in a topic necessarily must extend across multiple tweets or else utilize a service like TwitlongerTM to extend tweets. The necessity of these tools suggests that perhaps users should look to other platforms for extended tracts on a given subject.

Nonetheless, to circumvent these restrictions, the educated class of Twitter users has turned to short forms and acronyms to convey as much information as possible in a short space. Consider this tweet from Nick Kypreos (@ReakKyper) a hockey analyst:

#Kings Gaborik #NHL 7 yr deal comes in just north of 34m.  His aav comes in under 5m.  Good deal for LA

And yet, a recent study lists this troubling statistic:

Apostrophes, or a lack thereof, were followed by the use of acronyms such as LOL (laugh out loud) and YOLO (you only live once) as the most frequent examples of misuse in English. (Telegraph UK)

The assumption that acronyms are somehow “misuse” of language is bitter, cynical, and downright offensive. There should not, in fact there necessarily cannot, be any assumptions made connecting acronyms to misuse, poor spelling, and—worst of all—low intelligence.

Consider, for example, the charged, unfounded claims by a so-called expert in the field of Internet Linguistics (a.k.a. Gen-XYZ hating):

‘I think it has [been detrimental to spelling]…[Twitter spellings on a resume] would say to me ... 'well, this person doesn't think very clearly, and they're not very good at analyzing complex subjects, and they're not very good at expressing themselves, or at worse, they can't spell, they can't punctuate,’  [Joel Postman, author of Socialcorp: Social Media Goes Corporate] says. (Globe and Mail, emphasis mine)

I will not go so far as to say that “LOL” is appropriate on a resume, but then, most students are smart enough (regardless of their grammatical prowess) to hire / solicit those proficient in the language to edit their resumes for them. Let’s face it, I know that Tylenol fixes my aches and pains, that does not make me a chemist or a doctor; that I would first turn to Tylenol for pain that could actually be a serious tumour does not make me stupid. Proficient writing is a skill, like anything else.

Now, before this becomes a self-interested rant, I’ll return to a more factual and logical discussion of the rampant changes extant and clearly apparent in the English language. In “Sharing Time” Courtney Cazden investigates the effects of dialect on perceived skill and intelligence across ethnic boundaries (rather than the generational boundaries we’re currently discussing):

White adults were uniformly negative, with comments such as ‘terrible story,’ ‘incoherent,’ ‘this kid hops from one thing to the next.’ When asked to make a judgment about this child’s probably academic standing, without exception, they rated [a black student’s story] below children who told [stories with a ‘white’ manner of speaking].

Sound familiar? In both the above cases, there is a conservative, defensive emphasis on maintaining whatever speech / writing pattern that the observers themselves use.

In light of the above parallels, consider Dr. Simon Horobin’s ‘shocking’ comments at the latest Hay Literary Fesitval:

People like to artificially constrain language change. For some reason we think spelling should be entirely fixed and never changed. I am not saying we should just spell freely. But sometimes we have to accept spellings change. (Globe and Mail)

And this all in response to his suggestion that we might/can/should conceivably elide all of the spellings of their, there, and they’re because it does not matter to the average English speaker. Standardized spelling is a fairly recent, post-medieval invention. It is convenient; in some ways it aids communication, but it is not entirely necessary and ignores the frequent changes our language undergoes from day to day.

Art thou convinced? Can thou perceive the pedantry extant in the word thou? And did you know that the preceding sentence might contain two mistakes depending on the era of English? (Shakespeare would have said “canst” and modern readers should know—but probably don’t—that the second “thou” should have been bracketed by quotation marks). I could further investigate the past, class-indicative distinction between “swine” and “pork” (one used by poor German farmers, one by wealthy French aristocrats), but I hope my point is beginning to become clear.

What we are left with is two principles with which conservative adults need to become further affiliated: that of economy of language; and the importance of communication and discourse over grammar and syntax. It was once said that “necessity is the mother of invention” and here we see that very fact at work: the imposition of stringent Twitter guidelines means that we are actually creating new language. Whether it is language the Queen shall someday use is beside the point. That Internet language may produce a modern schism between formal, upper class English and the language of the lower class remains to be seen. For now, teachers must consider only the importance of communication. Those students who want to become writers and academic philosophers will learn to write “properly.” Others may only need to possess language as a tool for connecting—and isn’t that what we want to foster as teachers in the classroom?

So, instead of fearing Twitter and instead of making uninformed decisions about what tools to use in the classroom, we need to be wary of our own illiteracy. The existence of Twitter does not mean that Literacy has been Lost, but that there are new kinds of literacy forming—kinds about which we may very well be uninformed. Ignorance leads to fear and rejection;, but knowing what Twitter can do makes it fun and useful. Twitter opens the classroom to exploration: internet scavenger hunts, sharing links and videos to be shown in class, tweeting poems, logging a reading journal all espouse the effectiveness of the platform. That its restrictions might also invoke cause to think about language itself is only an added bonus.

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