Language is a very malleable, and very human thing. As Tom Wolfe writes in his thought-provoking new book, THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH, language is the thing that defines our humanity. Looks like we humans evolved as creatures that speak in order to compensate for our very poor sensory skills (i.e. dogs smell, hear, and see much better than we do). Grammar quite naturally evolved in the wake of speech and gave us the power–and the rules–to communicate in simple yet sophisticated ways. Now it seems those rules are evolving once again.
In a very interesting and infuriating (to some, at least) article (Mashable, April 2, 2018), Rachel Thompson tells us that Millennials “destroyed the rules of written English–and created something better.” This “something better” is contentious to say the least and has become a hot-button issue for those who teach grammar. According to Thompson, “spelling and grammar rules do not apply on the Millennial Internet. That’s because millennials have created a new rulebook for a variant of written English unique to social media. A rulebook which states that deliberately misspelled words and misused grammar can convey tone, nuance, humour, and even annoyance.” These are, quite understandably, fighting words for the vast army of English composition teachers that occupy classroom across the world.
Not everyone who teaches English is ready to do battle, however. Dr. Lauren Fonteyn, an English Linguistics teacher at the University of Manchester, is confident that “millennials are breaking the constraints of written English to be as expressive as you can be in spoken language.” Further, this “new variant of written English strives to convey what body language and tone and volume of voice can achieve in spoken English.”
Some of these new rules include “atypical capitalisation” (capitalizing words that normally aren’t capitalized and reducing others to lower case letters), removal of abbreviation marks (such as “dont,” “cant,” and “im”), use of those familiar texting abbreviations like “lol,” “idk,” and “bc”, and “paralinguistic meaning” (the use of periods to denote a full stop, which is often interpreted to mean that the writer is angry or frustrated, or just wants you to stop reading). And then there is the use of the “comma-ellipsis” which uses two periods (..) that mean “continue” or “please elaborate” and three periods (…) that conveys an “awkward or annoyed silence” or “are you serious?” And then there is the absence of any punctuation to convey “unadulterated excitement.” All of these new rules, and more, are apparently designed to more closely align written language with body language and emotion. And, of course, they are clever and defiant ways of announcing that this world no longer belongs to our parents and grandparents. Sound a little like the “never trust anyone over 30” phrase that was so prevalent during my formative years “back in the day” (i.e. the 1960s).
Dr. Peredur Webb-Davis, a professor of Welsh Linguistics (how intriguing) from Bangor University sums all this up by saying that what “we’re witnessing is the nascent beginnings of informal written English becoming even more expressive than spoken English.” For most English grammar teachers, this probably sounds like the end of the world, a virtual linguistic apocalypse (VLA). For those who are becoming overly excited about these changes, we are witnessing some very interesting research that suggests that language has been in flux throughout our history. A recent, and very mind-blowing example is David Reich’s much-discussed new book, WHO WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE: ANCIENT DNA AND THE NEW SCIENCE OF THE HUMAN PAST.
I am adopting a wait-and-see attitude about these linguistic changes. Will they be able to coexist with our familiar Harbrace Handbook rules, or will they bring about a revolution in written expression? Or will they only be a passing fad that will be forgotten by this time next year? My guess is that, like so many other developments, they will meet with initial resistance and then gradually be integrated in our communication. I am therefore going to be noncommittal in my attitude for the time being to avoid any unpleasant confrontations. And I am definitely not a confrontational person. Especially when it involves arguing the finer points of whether to capitalize or not.
However, I will attempt to compose a full sentence using the new language rules as listed above. Here goes:
“Although i cant fully accept these new rules of grammar i want to make THE POINT that we should be open minded (..) because IDK where all this is going and we shouldnt create unnecessary confusion or anger so lets #justchill and relax LOL while all of this plays out”
Even though I seem to have gotten my point across, I feel like my writing the previous sentence was an act of rebellion. So please don’t expect next week’s column to be written in this manner, because I am not quite ready to make the transition into this brave new world of “atypical capitalisation.” And let’s not forget that my daughter often chides me for my grammatically-correct text messages.
Here’s hoping you will spend this week contemplating how you use words.
See you Next Week TM