→ Isabella Lloyd
Language evolution is inevitable and necessary. As with any other language, the English language has seen innumerable changes over the course of its existence; from its Germanic heritage, to Shakespearean times to now—the changes are drastic. Typically, these changes are slow, subtle and almost imperceptible to the average English speaker, as the language simply changes to suit the needs of its users. However, as we’ve faced rapid changes to technology over the past two decades, English has, in turn, seen radical changes, from impressive word plays to a whole new form of language. This essay will examine just some of these changes—namely those introduced by social media, texting and the millennial generation—to demonstrate how casual language has filtered into writing.
In order to effectively compare the changes to our everyday use of the English language, it is important to first determine the differences between writing and speech. How language arose was from speech and that’s how we use language most. American linguist John McWhorter offers a timely perspective for the evolution of speech to language to writing. He says, ‘according to traditional estimates, if humanity had existed for twenty-four hours, then writing came along at 11.07pm. That’s how much of a latterly thing writing is’. Of course, writing has its advantages. It is a conscious process with hindsight, editing and thoughtfulness and when we write, we can do things with language that would likely not be possible if we were speaking. Furthermore, prior to advances in technology, our written communication with one another (in the form of letters) fostered this slow, engaged process. ‘Casual speech’ is something very different. When we speak, we’re speaking in a relatively unmonitored way and, according to linguists, in seven to ten word increments. Now that we have the devices and technology to do so, our writing is capturing this casual speech. As Jane Solomon writes, ‘it was once trendy to speak like people wrote, and now it’s the other way around. For the first time in history, we can write quickly enough to capture qualities of spoken language in our writing’.
The millennial generation, came of age during this time of rapid advancement in technology with the introduction of texting, instant messaging and social media. Common grievances to changes in the English language deplore how casual language used on these platforms inhibits the younger generation from understanding how to write and speak properly. However, many prominent linguists offer another perspective. McWhorter, for example, argues that far from destroying the English language [the younger generation] ‘are innovating and enriching the language… [their] forms of communication are a cultivated mix of formal and informal language and their mediums are at the forefront of change’. In an impassioned Ted Talk he describes how ‘we always hear that texting is a scourge. The idea that texting spells the decline of serious literacy, or at least writing ability, among young people … in the whole world today. The fact of the matter is that it just isn’t true … to see it another way … texting is a miraculous thing, not just energetic, but a miraculous thing, a kind of emergent complexity that we’re seeing right now’.