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Is social media changing our language? Dale Lately looks at slanguage, speakwrite and the unlikely precedent of Virginia Woolf’s txt spk.
Stream of Carelessness
A teenager appointed to be Britain’s first youth police and crime commissioner makes “inappropriate” comments on Twitter. A 16-year-old is fired after she describing her office job as “boring” on her Facebook page. Two teenagers sacked for writing about their boss on Facebook. Star Charlie Sheen falls into the social media celebrity bear trap by inadvertently tweeting his phone number to five million potential stalkers. A juror in the UK is sacked after disclosing sensitive case information on Facebook; a major airline takes disciplinary action against 13 crew members who insulted their safety standards online. Sobering stories, to be sure, and a telling snapshot of the dangers of the networked world – but they also beg an obvious question: what on earth do we expect if we write this stuff down in a forum available to anyone who looks for it?
Like many of older terms adapted and re-employed in a new context – to post, to mail, to update your status – the word “write” is sorely in need of an update. The teenagers, the Virgin cabin crew, the Labour candidate sacked over misjudged tweets from a trip to his Scottish constituency, did indeed write their comments in the technical and legal sense of the word. They pressed the keys, they saw the words appearing on the screen, and they hit Enter. But writing means so much more than the production of words. What seems to be on the face of it a matter of netiquette – why some people lose all sense of propriety in broadcasting their thoughts to a potential audience of over two billion people – is as much down to our ideas about how we classify written communication itself as it is to humanity’s evolving online personality.
It’s easy for digital natives to forget what a deliberative act writing once was, before technology eased the process. A simple letter involved a process of several stages: locating paper, stamp and envelope, as well as pen or typewriter, and finally some means of having it transported – not to mention the fact that in the days before open sharing, all interpersonal communication required an actual recipient. Even the most casual scribbling of all – a post-it pinned to the fridge, say, or a love letter passed among school students – still took substantially more effort than the average Facebook update.
And that’s why the word “write” just isn’t adequate for the ceaseless, real-time posting that’s now taking place across the world. Thoughts splashed onto a Facebook wall or tweeted from a handset are too casual and spontaneous to qualify as writing in its traditional sense. In an age where most of us touch-type while our minds roam free, the kind of commentary that dominates the social networks – and certainly the kind that tends to land people in trouble – is more like a burp from the brain, language that has evaded the formal filters of pen and ink, stamp and envelope.
In fact, the mode of communication that’s developing around us is far closer to a large-scale pub conversation, one that happens to take place in text rather than sounds and syllables. Punctuation, spelling and grammar often revert to pre-Johnsonian codification; complex sentences are folded into telegraphic verbless phrases; emoticons, exclamation and question marks are all over-employed to match the blustering levels of the web’s public discourse.
As language descriptivist David Crystal points out, the modern internet has speeded up an already bubbly surface of linguistic ferment, spawning whole new language subcultures in the process. Today’s social networks are the petri-dish for a mode of communication that’s neither precisely speech nor writing but a hinter-language between the two. Call it the Facebook lingua franca – a stream-of-carelessness that is, in the noisy echo chamber we inhabit, bound to claim victims. Let’s get our terms right here: we’re not talking about “writers”. The people who got caught out in the cases above were just speaking with their fingertips.
A visit to the Facebook page of a teenage relative of mine might illustrate my point. I’ve changed nothing in this sample of a short conversation thread – the first to appear on my screen when I glanced at his profile – but for cloaking the identities of the speakers:
Nate Jourden Jonny Jayde and any1 else av missed who wants to go sledging!!!!?
Weheyyy me & jonno got a sledgeee xxx
If I cud get up there and see u I wud well come sledging haha !! Think av got 2 aswell xxxx
Yea babe that defo sounds good! Just gimme a text! hope you have a good time sledging xxxx
And on another note jd from scrubs is a ledge
Yer but if I get a bike I can take it to uni with me whereas am givin the car to ma mum
Ask yourself: does it look like writing or speech? It’s function rather than form that determines the true nature of an utterance, and while the above has all been typed (a voice-to-text device would presumably have employed a spellchecker) the discourse displays all the impatience of a fast paced, garbled muttering-match between adolescents. Conventions of writing crumble. Phonetic spelling (wud, cud), glimpses of the speaker’s Yorkshire dialect (ma mum, else av missed) provide stylistic shortcuts just as elision and ellipsis serve to shorten casual speech. More than one unrelated conversation seems to be taking place simultaneously, just as in real life gatherings. Orthographic rebuses (any1, got 2) and splashes of text speak (defo, gimme) lessen the typing load still further. You could call it speech disguised as writing, but it’s more accurately described as a medium that lies somewhere in between, a form of “speakwrite” expressing the immediacy of the former but cloaking itself in the permanence of the latter.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that all this has an ancestry. While it’s true that the instantly accessible public forum didn’t exist before Usenet and the first digital bulletin boards, and that personal expression in written form was restricted for most to the odd note, postcard or letter to the editor, literature has been borrowing from the conventions of speech for centuries.
Consider the conversational narrator of the 18th and 19th centuries, with their moral commentary and direct address, a line that runs backwards through the likes of Dickens and Hugo to a pitch of sublime garble and narrative circumlocution in the pre-post-modernism of Laurence Sterne. Think of Richardson and the epistolary novel. Even the handwritten letter – already beginning to evoke ink-dipped quills and decorative seals for a new generation of kids who may never post one – was not always so sober as we may have imagined it. This epistle from Virginia Woolf to lover Vita Sackville Vest betrays all the breathy impatience of a lovesick SMS tapped out in a moment of inebriated passion, albeit with a touch more finesse:
Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come…
Or part of Sackville West’s reply:
Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.
Again, the clipped phrases, broken sentences, exclamations, exhortations and scattered punctuation, the breathless and, and, and… all suggest the speed and immediacy of speech. True, Woolf is perhaps a biased example – famous as she is for actually pioneering the voice of the unmediated consciousness in her literary output – but she by no means stands alone. Even in fiction, an urgent narrative could lead to speech-like prose, and the more the narrator was inveigled by some destructive passion the more the conventions crumbled. Take early pioneer of the confessional first-person narrator Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1843 short story of an unbalanced mind The Tell-Tale Heart strikes us with its vacillating, accusatory immediacy:
TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
And in the same passage:
You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!
While early horror writers like Poe sought to emulate the patterns of confession and conversation in their narrators, the formalist experiments of the Modernists would strive to do away with speech altogether. This extract from Molly Bloom’s internal monologue in Ulysses strives at a register which issues direct from the consciousness and shows even less regard for written convention than the Facebook posts above.
a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brain out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5…
To cut a long story short, the formal conventions of written prose, as well as the cultural and linguistic power bases that sustained them, have been under attack since long before Facebook. The rise of regional dialect in literature in the second half of the 20th century, kept under check since the likes of Robert Burns and Walter Scott by an Oxbridge-educated literati, famously found its expression in the Mersey poets and literary regionalists like Irvine Welsh, Patrick McCabe or Roddy Doyle, all of whom employ narrative voices and stylings that betray the features of local speech rather than writing. (The history of literature in English rings with a rich polyphony of dialect, of course, but it’s relatively new for it to colour the voice of the narrator themselves).
Accents, slang and swearwords became acceptable stylistic tools. Even the supremacy of writing itself was being questioned. Brian Patten memorably employed phonetics in his poem ‘Gust becos I cud not spel’ whose verses display an uncomfortable similarity to some of the less gifted contributors to today’s web comment threads (“those who laffed a lot / Have al bean rownded up / And hav recintly bean shot”).
But cultural change aside, it’s network technology that has brought this stylistic informality off the page and into the hands of the public on a mass scale. And it’s the new pads, phones and tablets that have made a population of young communicators pioneers in orthographic experimentalism. Beginning with the rise of the text speak around the Millennium – when sputtering Telegraph columnists were confronted by the cultural atrocity of a smiley – an entirely new dialect has swung into being, spurred on by the pell-mell of progress. Textiquette and its peculiar orthographic interventions quickly filled the classrooms. Impoverished slanguage or not, it heralded a new level of playfulness in how the country communicated with itself, as well as giving rise to a whole new linguistic subculture now busily migrating to the social networks.
A strain of literature based on text-speak has been evolving since the early 2000s, gaining wide readerships in China’s ‘m-novel’ romances and Japan’s Yoshi genre (T-Mobile crowned a UK “Txt Laureate” in a 2007 competition). Twitter fiction published in 140-character instalments has given us Josh Gosfield’s Fathom Butterfly, a recent Twitter Fiction Festival, and the nascent genre of nano-fiction, which shrinks flash fiction down even further to produce literature on the atomic scale. (Here’s author Esher Freud’s one line “novel” for a recent Guardian competition: “Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved”.) Some are attempting to deliver Ulysses or War and Peace tweet by tweet. The nano-linguists are nothing if not ambitious.
That’s not to elevate a slapdash Facebook stream to the level of artful prose. As what you might call a literary aesthete, I find the thoughtlessness of much of the speakwrite splashed across the web a gloomy herald of humanity’s potential for self-expression in the future, and I suspect I’m not alone. But literary aesthetes don’t write the history books. Facebook and Twitter do – or at least the people use them. The last 15 years has placed a public forum based on the written word (or wrtn wrd) within easy reach of the general population. It’s a mass democratisation of written language, if you like, just as the full extension of the voting franchise in 1928 was a mass democratisation of political rights. And mass democratisations have a habit of being messy. Universal suffrage is a noble achievement but also leads to UKIP-shaped weeds growing between the cracks; when technology expands the writing franchise, similarly, it has to be content with a lot of semi-literate mush amongst anything more thoughtful.
It might seem an academic point whether we label the more informal strain of online posting as writing or speaking, a question of classification for the linguists to sort out. But it has real world implications. If we fail to recognise speakwrite for what it is, we end up judging what is “said” online as if it carried much greater weight than it actually does. From the examples I began with to the man who found himself under threat of criminal prosecution when he tweeted an ill-advised joke about blowing up an airport, we treat the brain-to-blog outbursts that fills the web’s social hubs as they were the result of calculated stylistic intention. Was the airport tweeter really a terrorist, or just a cataclysmic judge of comic timing? What does it say about us that we’re prepared to treat a throwaway slip of sarcasm as if it were a bomb-threat, simply because it appeared on a screen? Let he step forward who’s never ground their teeth in a queue and muttered about how a bit of carefully placed Centex would do a great deal of improvement. Daily speech is rich in ripe incivility: the mistake the victims above made was to type it up and hit Enter.
Kids are coming of age now who have been on Facebook since childhood, who have no local library, who have never unfolded a paper map. There are others who can text but struggle to form letters with a pen or pencil. The future always arrives faster than we expect but feels oddly prosaic when it gets here. The billion or so people from the developing world expected to join the web in the 2010s will do so not via the keyboards and monitors I grew up with but rather, as technologist David Talbot points out, from tablets and mobile phones – with far-reaching implications for the further informalisation of language. Think before you speak, as my elementary teacher used to tell me. In a culture progressing faster than we can type, her words seem more apposite than ever. Some of us just also have to remind our fingertips.
Dale has run successful literary events both north and south, including a London-based storytelling night called Confessions that was featured in the Times. He also regularly performs at readings and literary events, and contributes to several literary platforms. He has recently finished a writing tour of Coalition Britain he calls "Orwell via Charlie Brooker" and blogs about postmodern culture, the web, and "Shop and Awe"—or the politics of contemporary consumerism.