The VirtuReality of Language and Evolution

An example of beautiful cultural expression made by a young artist, probably unaware they’re supposed to be uncultured and idiotic because of the Internet.

If an alien were to come to the United States and attempt a crash course on how best to understand this strange species, what medium would they use? Well, the answer may very well be sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many disagree on the pros and cons of social media and Internet trends, but they unarguably provide a snapshot of today’s world. In fact, there is such clarity to the social insights of vehicles like Twitter that people are using it to successfully predict stock market trends.

Personally, Twitter is not my favorite website but in light of such facts, and the ripples it visibly leaves amongst the rest of the virtual world, I can acknowledge its’ power and social contribution. Maybe I can respect the vehicle while nitpicking at the paint job because I’m a Nomad. Unlike me, there are many others with a growing concern is that Twitterspeak is altering the English language, and not for the better.

Actor Ralph Fiennes stirred the pot awhile back when he declared that sites like Twitter are dumbing down our language, and corrupting it for future generations. “We’re in a world of truncated sentences, sound bites and Twitter…[Language] is being eroded — it’s changing. Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.”

And he’s not alone in his disparaging remarks. Look here, or here… that first example to me is particularly troublesome. Mr. Zachary Adam Cohen condescendingly labels Mashable, Facebook, and their peers as “idiotic” and “[having an] identity crisis” in the Blog portion of his website, but lists “Social Media Branding” and “Social Media Strategies” as assets provided by his boutique digital strategy firm. Essentially, he’s calling prospective customers and Internet users stupid while trying to charge them for his services. That hypocrisy is so blatant and shameless it kind of nullifies his opinion that online Oreo branding campaigns are pointless, especially because that’s his job.

Or you could just type in “criticism of social media” and watch the kvetching unfold. (To those of you unfamiliar with the term, a kvetch is a Jewish/Yiddish word for those always looking for something to criticize. See: the diner next to you hogging all the unfortunate, bombarded waiter’s attention while they scoffingly disect every item on the menu and speculate why they didn’t just make their Grandma’s famous meatloaf at home.)

This is not to say that all social media critics are inherently a whiny group of nags…I just find it funny that with every new invention, revelation or even revolution there will always be kvetches waiting for disaster with a bated breath of “I told you sos.” They’re as immortal as the cockroach.

But I digress. Perhaps Mr. Fiennes is right and as a child of the tech boom my attention span has suffered alongside my linguistic capabilities. However I’d like to think that he made a rather highbrow and over-generalized statement. The big flaw in his argument is the very thing he is lamenting the loss of: linguistic evolution, whether it be positive or negative.

Language is fundamentally unable to be static. Just as we adapt and morph to survive in a rapidly, increasingly unfamiliar territory, so too does the way we express ourselves. Today’s grab-bag of dialects and styles reflects the unprecedented journey we’ve taken over the past 2 decades  (and beyond) and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I’m not alone in these conclusions, as there is proof that Twitter facilitates studies of sociolinguistics. Probably because its so easy to follow word trends for different regions and demographics. Social sciences theoretically are in favor of vehicles like Twitter, which provide unprecedented glimpses into the evolution of language, as noted in Wired Magazine. “It’s widely thought that human language evolved in universally similar ways…Instead, language seems to have evolved along varied, complicated paths, guided less by neurological settings than cultural circumstance.“ So it is culture that shapes the parameters of our language, and culture is ever-changing.

Just as the language of Courtly Love was the perfect way to capture the highly romanticized prose that was such a hallmark of the culture of medieval Europe, our deceptively simple slang use reflects the spirit of our generation. Don’t be distracted by @ symbols or hashtags, Twitterspeak and its website peers are honest representatives. Probably more so than our own House and its representatives, the latter so faithfully documented by none other than Twitter itself.

From representatives to rap stars, social media affects us all. Drake is a 25 year old rapper on the rise who scored big with his hit “The Motto.” The chorus insists on the message of “YOLO,” one that you can see echoed all over the Web. It means “You Only Live Once.” Partly because of the Internet, today’s younger generations are being encouraged to critically think and question everything. They are being exposed to cultures and other peoples in a wonderfully random fashion that is as unnatural as it is natural.

The motto YOLO may seem like another rap anthem sending the wrong message to impressionable youngsters, but if you look at the past 5 years you’ll see how us youngsters are taking it to heart. Any kvetchers, look at the demographics of the recent Occupy movement and then get back to me.

Should Generation Y (and those of us belonging to Generation Nomad) be dismissed because we don’t use the more conservative language of older times? Like Mr. Fiennes, I love the classics and recognize the genius of literary giants like Shakespeare and Dickens. Along with their compatriots, they are the truly significant voices of their times. But part of what makes such writers so fascinating is the clear difference that only highlights the contrast between our worlds. Linguistic change, not erosion, is a constant reminder of our evolution as a species.

The giants of our time, a wide range of websites offer an unprecedented chance for all those different voices to be heard. Now our world is captured in all its triumphs and despairs by more than celebrities and reporters, politicians and CEOs. Social media is the phenomenon of the Average Joe. Look at the SOPA/PIPA blackout, and how powerful the movement became. In the largest co-ordinated lobbying effort to date by Internet companies and people all over, two web censorship bills were tabled. Because people had this platform to express their views, Congress changed their mind.

I know that’s an oversimplified and seemingly sugar-coated interpretation of events, but it’s still a revelation. As a World Politics major, I learned the Democratic process was quite different in theory and reality. “We the people” used to be a roaring mass unable to penetrate the bubble around Capitol Hill. We relied on (sometimes questionably) elected officials to speak for us, constantly watching them out of the corners of our eyes, just waiting for them to renege on our trust. Now, “We the people” have proven we can inspire change in the way our country is run. Especially with devices that allow us to sync up to the global virtual community whenever, wherever. As Twitter supporters have pointed out, a clear timeline and up-to-date commentary show real-time reactions to breaking news.

I remember my 9th-grade English teacher telling me that I used 25 words to say something that could easily be conveyed in 5. She told me that every good writer must self-edit, and that longer terms do not necessarily translate into higher quality. On Twitter, you are encouraged to make simple statements without ornamentation that muddies its true meaning.

Whether in the virtual world or the real world, most people do not think in flowery prose but in simple words, and Twitter encourages this latter, more accurate form of communication. Is it as pretty and awe-inspiring as the words of Shakespeare? No. It is a more honest portrayal of modern times? Yes.

My question for Mr. Fiennes is, since when did we become word-racist? I must have missed the memo that decided only words exceeding two syllables could be considered vital to our language, as sophisticated cornerstones of an elite vocabulary. What about poetic classics like haiku? Or masters of terse, unconventional language like Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut? Let alone wordsmiths like e.e. Cummings, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams, whose concise language only enhanced the power of their message.

It might be more apt to say that Twitter encapsulates the evolution of language, rather than perpetrates its’ destruction. If you’re still looking for something to blame, you might realize the impossibility of this chicken-and-egg scenario. It would be nearly impossible to discern the origins of the abbreviations and acronyms dotting modern expressions. Was it text messaging? Or maybe even the Internet itself?

Travel back to the days of dial up, when your entry to the online world was marked by abrasive, screeching tones and abrupt undesired exits courtesy of your aunt’s game of phone tag. When AOL Instant Messenger was the hottest new thing on the block. Isn’t that where “LOL” and “OMG” and their compatriots became symbolic of new times and a younger generation? This is my real question of Ralph Fiennes, Zachary Adam Cohen and his fellow kvetchers: as a Social Media critic, are you willing to boycott the Internet (and large source of your livelihood) in protest of this supposed destruction of our language?


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