With every generation come cries that teenagers are destroying the language with their newfangled slang. The current grievance harps on the way casual language used in texts and instant messages inhibits kids from understanding how to write and speak “properly.” While amateur language lovers might think this argument makes sense, experts say this is not at all the case. In fact, linguists say teenagers, far from destroying English, are innovating and enriching the language.
First of all, abbreviations like haha, lol, omg, brb, and btw are more infrequent than you might imagine, according to a 2008 paper by Sali A. Tagliamonte and Derek Denis. Of course, 2008 is a long time ago in terms of digital fluency, but the findings of the study are nevertheless fascinating. Looking at IM conversations of Toronto-based teenagers, Tagliamonte found that “the use of short forms, abbreviations, and emotional language is infinitesimally small.” These sorts of stereotypical markers of teen language accounted for only 3 percent of Tagliamonte’s data. Perhaps one of her most interesting findings is that older teens start to outgrow the abbreviation lol, opting for the more mature haha. Tagliamonte’s 16-year-old daughter told her, “I used to use lol when I was a kid.”
Tagliamonte, who now is exploring language development in texting as well as instant messaging, argues that these forms of communication are a cultivated mix of formal and informal language and that these mediums are “on the forefront of change.” In an article published in May of this year, Tagliamonte concludes that “students showed that they knew where to use proper English.” For example, a student might not start sentences with capital letters in IMs and text messages, but still understands to do this in formal papers. Tagliamonte believes that this kind of natural blending of conversational registers employed by teens would not be possible without a sophisticated understanding of both formal and informal language.
It was once trendy to try 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, and teens are skillfully doing just that. John McWhorter’s 2013 TED Talk “Txting is killing language. JK!!!” further supports the idea that teens are language innovators. He believes their creative development of the English language should be not mocked, but studied, calling texting “an expansion of [young people’s] linguistic repertoire.” He singles out the subtle communication prowess of lol. Teens are using it in non-funny situations, and its meaning has expanded beyond just “laugh out loud.” Now it can be used as a marker of empathy and tone, something often lacking in written communication. This is an enhancement–not a perversion–of language. There’s also evidence to suggest that lol sometimes carries a similar meaning to wtf (and furthermore, the abbreviation wtf is more functional and sophisticated than it seems).
Teens aren’t the only ones opting for abbreviations in written communication. The first citation of OMG in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1917 letter from the British admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher to none other than Winston Churchill. He writes, “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis–O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)–Shower it on the Admiralty!!” Clearly, to give young people all the credit for spreading new abbreviations would be shortsighted, though this letter does bring up the question of where Admiral John Fisher first encountered OMG. Perhaps he picked up this colorful expression from his grandchildren.