Digital lingo makes us feel trendy, but should slang (like “selfie”) be left on our mobile phones or nah? In a generation of entrepreneurs, not many of us are taking risks with words. We use whatever terms come easily; we grab the low-hanging LOL and the hashtag is our favorite intensive. In the pre-Internet era, a lot of digital lingo would have died out early in its etymology. Our old bae would have been an instant breakup. We’d have discharged the struggle bus at the first stop. But haven’t you heard? Once something is posted in the virtual world, it’s irrevocable.
Language reflects the time we live in—and we’re moving at breakneck speed. Texts demand an immediate reply and a lull in response time speaks volumes. Forget footnotes; we can’t even get through the passage itself. And poetry? It only slows the world down. Language is always evolving, though: even Chaucer was worried that his work wouldn’t be accessible to an English-speaking audience after a few years. And this is the guy credited with inventing the Middle English vernacular.
Here’s a testament to the power of words: we’re still reading Chaucer. In fact, pick any writer you love and think about how they push the English language forward. Instead of reiterating what we see online, we could be alluding to lines from great books. Talk about an epic TBT. If we can exhaust hours trolling our timelines, surely there’s time to think of a synonym for basic or cray. “Why say talkative when you can say loquacious?” laughs Taylor Birnbaum, a senior majoring in political science. “It’s almost like a game, thinking of all these words. It really spices up conversation.” Are we bastardizing our own vocabulary? Will all classic literature be retired in 140 characters?
Don’t take my word for it. New York poet and Sarah Lawrence College professor Kevin Pilkington says that there are two sides to the story: “More students are writing today because of social media—that was never the case. If you write a blog, all of a sudden, you’re an author.” He explains that the Internet allows us to save the time we would have spent fumbling through card catalogues and just write. But using digital lingo is also detrimental, limiting the ability to perform when writing critically. Many younger people cannot use grammar effectively and develop non-traditional spelling. Pilkington calls it a teachable moment in writing: “Young people create their own lingo and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when it slides into formal writing, then that’s a problem. Cyber-slang is basically another language by itself.”
Since we all have a rebel in us, a deliberate misspelling here and there doesn’t seem so criminal. We can all concede that some text messages are desperate for an explicatory emoji like an impish grin (especially when autocorrect gets clumsy). But why wish there were an emoji for a certain sentiment when we can tell people how we really feel?
Maybe when we quote a trending tweet, we validate ourselves: we are in on a joke that you need a password of six characters or more to comprehend. But with such sameness to the way we talk, we can’t possibly be experimenting with different identities. Instead, we fit neatly into an online persona. “It’s a definite trait of this generation,” said sophomore Catherine* “Simpler, easier to understand, robotic text. It shows how attached we are to our screens.” Where is the individuality?
With so much access to knowledge online, we shouldn’t be phrasemongers. We should be wordsmiths. We will always have slang and talk without formal elements; candidly, there is something wonderful about making our own adjustments. We are not obligated to convert all of our experiences into elevated writing or deliver litanies for our roommates at the end of a long day. But a culture thrives when a language thrives. Linguists don’t just have an appreciation for diction. They make a sport of finding the right words to enhance our understanding or move us emotionally. Adjectives are not just tinsel on a tree. We understand loss—we understand everything—through language.
To read more about social media and how it affects millenials, read our latest issue, the Social Media issue, available online and on newsstands around the University of Miami campus.
*Name has been changed to ensure privacy.
words_caitlan rossi. illustration_michelle lock.