November 20, 2005

How Technology has Corrupted Language

Beep. It's from Hamlet. 2B? NT2B?=??? | Yahoo! News

The above news posting made me feel sick. For a while, I considered writing a piece about how instant messaging, e-mail, and SMS has tainted the value of the printed word, but I often felt that the situation was not as urgent as I originally suspected. When I first heard someone actually say "Lol" in a spoken conversation, I knew things were bad, but I thought we were still some years away from disgusting constructions like "2B? NT2B?"

How wrong I was. I'm not part of that generation where computer ownership was considered a luxury for most high school children; we were expected to submit most things typed and printed. However, back then, we still used our pencils most of the time. We were accustomed to writing out entire words, articulating our feelings with a healthy supply of adjectives. Abbreviations were frowned upon, and we were aware that contractions weakened the language already. Consider the following two statements; it is clear which one is stronger.
"I won't eat this spinach."

"I will not eat this spinach."

The contraction used in the first statement weakens the emphasis of the negation; I would expect that with enough coercing, I could convince the writer of the first statement to eat the spinach. The second statement, however, signifies a bold defiance against spinach-eating that one would take all the way to the grave. For example, it would have been much less effective had William Wallace told the Englishmen that "You can take our lives, but you can't take our freedom." in Braveheart. That he explicitly says, "You can not take our freedom" emphatically suggests that this mans freedom was not something he would compromise under any circumstances.

You will not find many contractions in classical texts. They became common because of tongue laziness, as pronouncing too many syllables can quickly become tiresome; now, it is a perfectly common and normal part of speech. Lots of abbreviations have also been accepted as common enough to be used in formal writing. Nowadays, we do not even know what the acronyms mean, but still use them in our writing.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that common internet and SMS terms like "lol", "brb", and "l8r" will embed themselves into regular grammar in the same way. Some may say that this is just the natural evolution of language, and there is no reason to prevent it. However, many of these terms are incredibly stupid and ingenuine, and for the later generations who have been writing like this all their lives, that lack of authenticity will likely weaken the language even further.

Seriously, who actually laughs out loud when they type "lol"? Is there anyone who actually rolls on the floor laughing after typing "rofl"? Originally intended as abbreviations, these have become terms in themselves now which have been corrupted even further through contructions like "lolz", "loooooll!!11", and "rofflez!!"; these are indications that mainstream acceptance of the original terms has already begun. I do not want to even get started on the unpronounceable, meaningless terms like "pwn", which is at least two mistakes away from actual English.

Text messaging on mobile phones, or SMS, has made things far worse. Nowadays, most mobile phones are advanced enough that users can send full sentences, without resorting to abbreviating every second word. However, the culture of abbreviation in mobile technology has been so pervasive that these habits have persisted, and it is considered uncool to actually write out entire words. Grammar and spelling is so 20th century, after all. I remember watching a cousin of mine in India chatting on MSN. When accidentally writing "How are you?", she promptly deleted her last two words and wrote "How r u?" instead. After all, those pesky vowels sure complicate things.

For Muslims, the Islamic greeting of "Assalamu'alaykum" has not been spared from this corruption. This is a beautiful greeting which is shared by over a billion people worldwide, irrespective of language, culture, or sect; there is probably no other phrase in any language which matches the prevalence of this greeting. Every once in a while, however, I will get contacted on MSN Messenger with the message "aa". Many Muslims will reply with "ws", to imply "Wa'alaykum assalam." Our greeting is beautiful, "May Peace be with you." The more people use "aa" and "ws", the more likely this greeting will go the ways of "Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem", which has been reduced to a meaningless "786" in much of the Muslim world.

For those of you who continue to spell out words entirely in their instant messaging conversations, kudos to you. You will find me responding accordingly. But if you insist on "aa"ing me, then I can not promise you a meaningful discussion. And if you ever say "rofl", you better be rolling on the floor, laughing. Otherwise, I will have a very hard time believing anything else you say.

Update 8.1.2006: Apparently, research has proven my assertions false:
Texting helps teens' grammar | The Globe and Mail

The ironic part is the "verbing" of the word "text" in the title of the article, which is a grammatical failing in itself.


  1. I didn't think the Hamlet text was so bad... I think the other ones in the articles are worse. The Hamlet line is the most iconic, and the text instantly brings to mind the actual wording/spelling.

    The real issue here is your evident subconscious hatred for spinach.

    I have always said that The People Make the Language. It's clear that the people also break the language.

    On my end of the 'ws', perhaps I may type a short form but I am silently saying wa'alaykum assalaam.

    Is saving time problematic? Writing 'brb' makes sense, if you need to leave momentarily an additional 8 characters in "be right back" is time consuming.

    I could not have been more appalled when in grade 12, my ENGLISH TEACHER asked our class if it was okay for her to write LOL when marking our short stories.

  2. In the programming world, "To be or not to be" can be translated as (2b || !2b)

    Language is evolving, another sign of humanity moving ahead to a brave new world.


  3. Shan: I don't think "brb" is a problem in itself, since it is genuine and there is a reason for the brevity. But constructions like "lol" and "rofl" are problematic, since their usage is accepted without regards to the meaning; "lol" has become a term in itself.

    The same goes for "aa" and "ws". So long as it means "Wa'alaykum assalam", it isn't too bad. But overuse of "aa" and "ws" could potentially lead to those becoming terms in themselves, thus rendering the original, pristine phrase obsolete. How many people actually silently say "Bismillah" when reading 786 now?

    For a much better description of this problem, you should read the timeless essay "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. Written in 1946, (before the book "1984" was written), it eerily describes the current political situation very accurately, highlighting the use of language to distort and corrupt meanings.

    Bhai: Read the same essay, and you'll see that we're already in the world of 1984 and Brave New World, at least in terms of 'doublespeak'.

  4. we live in a world where change is the only constant..

    acronyms by any other name? how were we meant to avoid the move toward shortCUTS, when life has become a journey of precision timing and economising every aspect. we go with the flow. time, traffic and the use of econo-media.

    is it really all that brave?
    ur rite ;) and you are perfectly correct in your suggestion that we are truly copping out. taking the easy way back to simple communication; getting the job done.. smoke signals, sign language.. symbols and single-digit images that just mean something.
    there is a transitional 'generation' capable of communication in both traditional language usage as well as this brave new version.. those who do not make use of technology will remain blissfully unaware of its perils to beautiful language.. but what of the econo-conscious, techno-minded brave new generation?what now?

  5. Faraz,
    I liked your article very much. It is good piece of literary work.

  6. Nice post... very good points. It makes me feel special for always writing out everything in proper English though I use the term "lol" sometimes too much.

    I literally laughed out loud after reading your father's comment just above me though. That was unexpected yet accurate. :)

  7. Kimya: Thanks for visiting! The brave new world isn't all brave, as you said, as we tend to follow the path of least resistance in all matters. Language is one of many victims in that sense.

    Thanks Abba. :)

    Nauman: aa, thx for posting lol, iA i will come to TO soon and we can chat frthr!!11 lol!!

    All: Here's the link for the Orwell essay I mentioned. It's almost 60 years old now, but it is perhaps even more meaningful now than it was back then. The whole section on political doublespeak and meaningless catchphrases fit in perfectly with today's political vocabulary (i.e "weapons of mass destruction", "terrorism", etc..)