Friday, 29 February 2008

On tweenlish

A journalist writes to ask about tween-speak, which he defines as slang spoken by people between the age of 8 and 12. Will it affect the English language, he wonders? He comments that one of the major influences on tween-speak is Internet and SMS communications, so he wonders how these technologies have influenced modern English.

I've never actually investigated this age-range from this point of view, and wonder actually whether it's likely to be very different from the teen-speak that has had a fair bit of coverage, especially in the popular press (noting such things as book for cool in text messaging, or LOL for 'laughing out loud', which also had - ?has - something of a vogue in speech). Such lists are never very long, and it's never clear just how common such usages are. As my question-mark indicates, I've no idea if these things are still used, and if so, by who and how much. Perhaps some readers of this post will tell me? Apart from the question of age, I'd expect gender to play a part (sociolinguistic studies suggest that girls are more likely to introduce linguistic innovations) and also region. My correspondent is writing for a Hong Kong magazine, and I'd expect Chinese tweenies to be doing some very different things, compared to their British counterparts.

But the impact of all this on English (or other languages)? Very little, I would say. Slang of this kind rarely becomes permanent in a language. The whole point of slang is to identify a group - whether tweens, teens, doctors, footballers, or whoever - and it is by its nature ephemeral. A lot of it never gets written down. And as soon as young people realise that adults are picking up their slang, they drop it and move on. So the overall influence on the language is small. There are very few cases of originally slang words becoming standard English. Mob is one, from a couple of centuries ago. Bus is another. The sort of thing that kids come up with, like texting book, is unlikely to last, unless it somehow gets picked up and given a public written presence (such as by being used in a best-selling novel). These usages make fascinating footnotes in the history of a language, and eventually they take their place alongside all the other slang developments of the past, of interest to linguistic historians. It's good to have people collecting them, therefore, so the more examples anyone can get hold of, the better. And if my younger (or younger-minded) readers have some which come immediately to mind, do send them in!

And the impact of the Internet on English? Again, very limited, as regards the actual forms of the language. I've written this up in my Language and the Internet , and also in Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 , out in a few months time, so I won't repeat myself here. My view, in short, is that the various domains of the Internet have generated some novel usages, but not that many - and how many of them will become permanent features of a language is unclear. Some of the new technical terms will stay, of course, such as blog and emoticon, but when you add up all of these you get only a few hundred, which is a tiny tiny percentage of the English vocabulary as a whole. There have been hardly any grammatical novelties. And very few chatroom or texting abbreviations are actually used with any frequency.

What the Internet has done, though, is increase the stylistic range of the language - adding new styles which weren't there before, such as in blogging, emails, and chatrooms, where we see a greater flexibility in the use of punctuation and capitalization, new types of discourse interaction (such as in instant messaging), and a level of informality in grammatical construction which hasn't been seen in written English since the Middle Ages. The Internet has also provided us with new communicative possibilities that are genuinely revolutionary - such as hypertext links, animated writing on screen, simultaneous conversations in chatrooms, cutting and pasting in emails, and so on. But the actual English language we see on our screens is largely the same as anything we were accustomed to seeing in written form before the Internet came along.

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