e-grammar; or, a tepid defense of the text-dump

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(N.B. In order to access the hyperlinked footnotes, you have to be viewing the entire entry.)

Meet Kate: smart, successful, confident, fresh out of college, and with every reason to feel the unexamined happiness she’s accustomed to. But right now, however, Kate is rather down – her boyfriend just dumped her. Which is tough for anyone, of course, but Kate is taking it particularly hard – the dump arrived via text message: i thnk we need a brk frm e/o. Kate feels that this is extraordinarily insensitive and impersonal, a sentiment her entire support team echoes.

But, at the risk of sounding like one seriously coldhearted and callous fellow, is the text-dump[1] really that evil? The great bulk of Kate’s communication, to her boyfriend and pretty much everyone else, is done via short bursts of electronic communication – texting, email, instant messenger, etc. – and much of it is very personal, e.g., ‘sexting.’[2] The dump, however, may be the last hold-out, the one interpersonal exchange that, according to agreed social etiquette, actually requires a real in-person exchange; everything else has been subsumed. And that’s perfectly okay; this sort of evolution of communication might be cause for some handwringing (and a new etiquette), but it’s inevitable. But that doesn’t mean it’s a seamless or slight transition: such a profound shift of everyday communication influences and shapes our language. Some of the change is obvious, some less so.

Terseness, for instance, strikes as an immediate example of internet-influence.[3] Vowels are dropped (“break” to “brk”; “Menachem” to “mnchm”), acronymic jargon is rampant (“ttyl” = talk you later; “brb” = be right back), and whole words are collapsed into phonetically similar letters (“see” to “c”; “you” to “u”). An interrelated development is the informality of net-speak. Very literate folk routinely eschew capitalization and proper grammar usage, often with no negative impact on the clarity of the intended message, e.g., “mayb c u tmrw have gr8 night.” These are interesting, rich developments, to be sure, but not all that surprising considering the space restrictions (text messages’ 160-character limit), input restrictions (small keyboards, smaller number pads), near-frenetic frequency (always-on instant messaging, plus email’s increasingly appearing as a glorified version of instant messaging), and, significantly, the rapid response that the system thrives on.

So clearly, there is a morphological evolution underfoot.[4] But I submit that the net-influence extends well beyond form and vernacular, and into even our basic communicative existence; our very modes of expression are shifting as well, though far more subtly.

The primary mode of communication – the common exchange and forum of ideas, news, gossip; the forum where amity and even intimacy is established – has moved in great part to the digital realm.[5] An expectation of a speedy receipt and reply of the message has shortened the exchanges to the point where full, online conversations – not, it should be stressed, (more-static) correspondences – are the norm.[6] But without modification, this sort of communication is hardly a substitute for substantive and live conversation: the sublanguage is gone. Irony and sarcasm, flirtatiousness and playfulness, contained anger and ecstasy are extremely difficult to convey online with any precision.[7] Nonverbal cues – like laughter or the raised eyebrow – are more critical than we often realize in relaying a message. This is not a knock on the epistle’s emotional robustness: evocations and rich descriptions are certainly possible (and often very lovely) in prose, but this takes skill, space, time, and care, none of which are generally employed in the casual email, let alone text message.

This is a gaping hole for a medium that has arguably become our primary form of communication, so it’s natural and welcome for a linguistic evolution of sorts to have occurred to fill it – enter the emoticon. The emoticon, if you happen to have missed the last dozen or so years, is any sequence of printable characters meant to convey an emotion or expression, e.g. :) (smile) or ;) (wink). And though they tend to be strongly associated with middle-school girls, they are becoming increasingly common, and, I submit, important: these emoticons are not merely throwing an isolated ‘wink’ to the reader – it’s modifying the entire message. Here’s a simple but effective example: “You’re gross” vs. “You’re gross ;)”. The emoticon, while not changing the definitional meaning (‘you’re gross’ really isn’t all that semantically flexible), does, however, profoundly change the tone. Somehow, it’s managed to imbue the sentence with the pregnancy of the smirk, or the grin, or the actual wink; it introduces endearment with but two ASCII characters. Not to be too dramatic about it, but this is an entirely new grammar.[8] The question mark and exclamation mark, for their part, don’t really compare: those are two characters[9] that perform strictly defined operations on the sentence viz. question-izing and exclaim-izing. The full range of emoticons allows a fantastic – and heretofore unprecedented – diversity of tone-modification, including surprise, anger, sarcasm, shock, flirtatiousness, silliness, and much more.[10] It goes beyond emoticons, of course: another, less-dramatic example of this new sort of e-grammar includes the ‘yelling’, even ‘rudeness,’ of all-caps text.

Is non-electronic (and formal electronic) communication limited, then, because it lacks this semantic resource? Of course not – the language is more than rich enough to express these sentiments, and far less bluntly at that. But it remains to be seen if standard English borrows – slowly, gradually – from online nomenclature.[11]

The inception of a grammar of emotional realism is, to me, a more interesting development of internet-era language than, say, jargon. And we’re not done yet – as email/text/IM further monopolizes modern communication, there will be greater precision of this emotional grammar, via fresh emoticons or signs or even syntax. Soon, the text-dump may be signed off by two new signals: sincerity and contrition. Until then, however, Kate will be understandably upset.

[1] I’m employing this clunky terminology only for lack of a better option, which, frankly, I’m shocked doesn’t exist yet (or if it does, it’s not mainstream enough for me to have encountered). It’s only a matter of time before one does of course; recent movies like Up in the Air are already using it as a plot device. (Click to return.)

[2] Here’s a lovely precedent for the previous FN’s prediction. (Click to return.)

[3] This entire essay will unapologetically conflate internet, chat, email, text-message, and other sorts of electronic communication. This is in acknowledgment that there is increasingly little difference between them, especially with the dawning of the ubiquitous ‘smart phone’ age. All are answered promptly (or that’s the expectation, at least) and each are ruled by similar linguistic etiquette, in a broad sense. (Text messages may use ‘2’ for ‘to’ with more frequency than, say, email, but I suspect that’s more a function of the recipient than implicit rules of formality.) (Click to return.)

[4] An evolution that remains – for now – limited to informal e-communication. I imagine very few cover letters are signed off with “tlk 2 u l8r.” (Click to return.)

[5] Whether or not this a good thing, i.e., whether we’re effectively transferring our very rich interpersonal communication with zero casualty or are instead destroying the most valuable emotional/spiritual/human part of it, is way, way beyond the scope of this essay. (Click to return.)

[6] That said, it appears that while online conversations have been continually marching towards real-time, a sort of limit has in fact been reached. Instant-messaging program ICQ’s heralded killer feature – typing in real time – was a bust, and still-beta Google Wave recently disabled a similar gimmick after consumer protest. We’re apparently not comfortable (yet?) with e-communication fully mimicking the live exchange of actual speech. (Click to return.)

[7] Anecdote: A past relationship of mine arguably failed for this very reason. It began while I was overseas, and our almost-exclusive mode of communication was IM. We were both guarded and somewhat caustic young things, and IM delivered a great forum for a non-ironic, honest exchange. But we grew reliant on the emotional filter, and ultimately, after I moved back stateside, we couldn’t handle traditional conversation – it was communication overload. (Click to return.)

[8] The closest traditional parallel might be those few words that act adjectivally on full sentences, e.g. ‘hopefully.’ Consider: “Hopefully, I will go to the store later.” The entire sentiment expressed in the clause has been affected by ‘hopefully.’ (Click to return.)

[9] See, also, the interrobang, a personal favorite whose charms the public has somehow resisted. (Click to return.)

[10] Even casual web-browsing will uncover a vast amount of distinct emoticons, with varying levels of popularity and practicality. Further (and less-casual) research will also reveal that they are not actually new: a form of the smiley has existed for about a century. My argument of a new breed of grammar still stands, however – electronic communication wasn’t exactly popular before electronics, and it’s only as email/text becomes the standard medium that we’re forced to rely on emoticons and the like to fill the emotional gaps that accompany the shift. (Click to return.)

[11] It’s probably pertinent to mention that I nearly never use emoticons, in part because I find them brash, trite, and needlessly affective. But mostly it’s because I’m a pretentious prick ;). (Click to return.)

Written by menachemkaiser

9 December at 19:28

Posted in rants

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