Thursday, October 26, 2006

Words getting shorter? Whatevs

Though thriving in the age of text messaging and IM, abbreviated lingo is nothing new.

By Rachel Liebrock

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Sitch. Whatevs. Biz Ca Fri. Go with?


If you get the meaning behind the above words and phrases, then you've obvi got the 411 on today's abbrev ling.

Because speaking in full sentences and words is, like, so 20th century. In this golden age of text messages, instant messaging and e-mails, our need for shorthand that economizes words, syllables and typing time has spilled over into everyday conversation.

The phenomenon isn't just about technology -- it actually dates back hundreds of years. Spoken language is constantly changing, and some experts contend the result isn't just speedier dialogue. It also could increase the potential for literacy.

'Sup with that?

In a July article, The New York Times pinned the "anti-language" trend on 'tweens and teens who've created a deconstruction of dialogue that "rises out of the ashes of the current Internet craze."

But that's only part of the story, says Grant Barrett, author of "The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English."

The habit of verbally "clipping" or "blending" words to create new ones is centuries old, he says.

"It's [happened] at every point in the history of language," said Barrett, talking on the phone from his Manhattan office. "[Now], it's just more easily recordable and more easily researchable."

Modern versions of such slang date back several decades, he adds. For example, we first substituted "za" for "pizza" in the '50s and the term "whatevs" started replacing "whatever" in the mid-'90s.

The phenomenon behind shortening our sentences ("go with?" for "do you want to go with me?" et al.) is relatively new and a direct result of how we communicate with each other in e-mails, chat rooms and text messages, he adds.

As with the telegraph, Barrett says, the increased use of new technologies has prompted a noted, accelerated shift in our communication.

True, says founder Aaron Peckham, who says he's noticed a major increase in user submissions to his online slang dictionary.

The site's received more than 3 million submissions since its 1999 inception -- with more than two-thirds of those posted in the past year alone, Peckham says.

"We're morphing our language every day, [but] it's really started to change in the last 20 years," said Peckham, a 25-year-old Sacramento native.

Many of those entries are abbreviated versions of existing words and phrases, he adds, ticking off examples such as "boys" or "BF" instead of "boyfriend" and "ridic" for "ridiculous."

The result, Peckham says, is a new tech-fueled vocabulary for the digital generation.

"New technologies are making it easier to communicate across [international borders] -- it's a way we share pop culture," he said. "It really makes the English-speaking world a lot smaller."

Suzanne Kemmer agrees. The associate professor of linguistics at Houston's Rice University has archived thousands of slang terms in her online "Neologisms Database."

While all languages experience "constant mutations," English is one of the easiest to play around with, says Kemmer, on the phone from Helsinki, Finland, where she was attending an academic conference.

The modern trend is strongly rooted in Japan and Europe, where users have long relied on cellphones for more than verbal conversations, she adds.

Now, expect more abbreviations as more Americans adopt text messaging -- we sent more than 64 billion messages in the first half of 2006 alone, according to the CTIA, the Wireless Association, a company that tracks international usage.

"The structure of our language and word-formation devices naturally lends itself to this blending and clipping," Kemmer said.

This, coupled with an ever-increasing ability to communicate anywhere, anytime, means that, culturally, we've adopted a need for speed.

"Once [we] added this new media of text messages and IMs and e-mails, we put a premium on time," Kemmer said.

"It's the principle of economy; we want to get our message across fast, and typing or saying the full word or phrase just takes too much work."

So is there a downside to all this verbal slash and burn?

What's next -- hand gestures and primal noises?

Yes and no, Barrett says.

While text- and e-mail-influenced language could have a negative impact on how students read and write, Barrett predicts the ultimate result will be increased literacy.

"I'll take a kid who speaks to me in IM lingo over a kid who doesn't [communicate] at all," he said.

After all, the future of communication, he says, is theirs. "Kids have ownership of language -- it's theirs and they know it," Barrett said. "We will always see them discovering the delights of words, toying with language and using it in ways that feel like they're excluding adults and creating something of their own."

Eventually, he says, the rest of us will catch on and catch up as a matter of social survival.

"History has a tendency to simplify -- and we do this by making things shorter," he said. "It's OK as long as the message intended is the message received."

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