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Textspeak Signals 500-Year Language Change, SVC Professor, Philologist Observes

Public Relations
Posted: Monday Jan 9, 2012

January 9, 2012

The younger generation’s extensive use of abbreviations to communicate quickly in text messages – LOL (laugh out loud), IDK (I don’t know) or MBF (my best friend) – may be a sign of a major change in the English language, according to observations by the Rev. Wulfstan Clough, O.S.B., professor of English at Saint Vincent College and an expert in the field of philology and linguistics.

“If you study the origins and development of the English language, you will find that a major shift in the English language occurs roughly every 500 years,” Fr. Wulfstan said. “Our language arrived in Great Britain in 449, when it was brought there by the Anglo Saxons. The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought a heavy French influence to English, so that the Old English of Beowulf became the Middle English of Chaucer. Then, in the fifteenth century, the period between Chaucer and Shakespeare, we had the Great Vowel Shift, which turned Middle English into Modern English. The pattern is evident. Now, around the year 2000, I think we are looking at the beginning of another major change in English. I predict that a hundred years from now, English may be so different that we’d have trouble understanding it.”

Current communication technology is having an impact on the way people speak. “A good example is the television commercial where a mother asks her daughter who she has been texting so much and the girl responds in textspeak: ‘IDK MBF Jill (I don’t know, my best friend, Jill.),’” Fr. Wulfstan related. “The commercial is very amusing but it hits on something that is really happening in the sense that technology is affecting the way English is being spoken.”

“Acronyms, or words formed from abbreviations, are becoming routine in current language,” Fr. Wulfstan, who teaches a course in the development of the English language every fall, noted. “At first they were just written in text messages. Now, those same acronyms are becoming new words in our spoken language.”

In addition, Fr. Wulfstan has observed that people are also speaking more quickly than before. “The pace of textspeak is much faster than normal speech,” he said. “I think we are in more of a hurry now than ever before. Speed and efficiency are playing a role. We just want to say what we want as quickly as we can so we can get on with whatever we were doing. I think our language is going to keep speeding up. It may eventually sound like a record that is played at a faster than normal speed.”

Another thing that is affecting the English language is that in some parts of the world English is taking on entirely different forms. “Pidgin English used in Africa and the South Pacific is a good example,” Fr. Wulfstan said. “It’s clearly English but probably not a form we would understand. It uses English vocabulary and grammar but in a very different way. Influences on English from other cultures and other languages will also have an impact such as Jamaican English, ebonics, even British and Irish English.”

Textspeak is also affecting the way children learn to write. “I frequently hear grade school teachers complain that children are using these acronyms in their writing,” Fr. Wulfstan reported, “and even inserting emoticons (graphic faces that smile or frown). Of course, the teachers still teach standard English, which the students do need to know. Textspeak is far from acceptable in polite or formal discourse. Teachers are trying to maintain a rigid separation between textspeak and standard English. But the students still use textspeak in casual conversation. It’s like a parallel track; they adapt their level of usage to the audience they are speaking to. And the influence of textspeak will inevitably creep over.”

Is textspeak better or just faster? “Textspeak is better only in that it is quicker, not more accurate,” Fr. Wulfstan said. “I would argue that it is less accurate since it is trimmed down so much that you have trouble making fine distinctions in textspeak; it lacks subtlety. It is just for practical communication.”

“I think if textspeak continues to be influential, you are going to see something like a polyglot,” Fr. Wulfstan predicted. “It will probably be a combination of current standard English and textspeak; the two will combine to produce a new form of English. It will take at least a generation, but it could happen. Something like that occurred after the Norman conquest. French vocabulary and grammar combined with Old English to change the language into a combination of the two.”

“I don’t think you can deny that technology is having a definitely permanent effect on English,” Fr. Wulfstan concluded. “Whether that effect is for the better or the worse remains to be seen.”

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Photo: Rev. Wulfstan Clough, O.S.B. 

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