Recently, I have received more than one e-mail, typically referred to as an “e-mail chain,” warning me about the dangers of allowing immediacy, brevity, and informality to trump proper usage and negatively impact the way in which we communicate.
Is this by chance an unprecedented phenomenon? Has nobody in the past ever sounded the alarms for languages to never vary? Many academics not very keen on diachronism maintain the importance of protecting the linguistic status quo and impeding language mutation, whether stemming from interpersonal communication or other factors.
Is it possible to think about contractions as a precursor to the phenomenon to which we are referring? At least as far as the English language is concerned, in Elizabethan times, for example, Shakespeare used contractions in dialogues (“But he’s an arrant knave” –Hamlet), titles (All’s Well that Ends Well), and in sonnets (“That’s for thyself to breed another thee”).
Addison, Swift, Pope, and other authors began to express their reservations in terms of their validity, although educated people routinely used them in speech. By the end of the 18th century they had fallen out of grace: they were tolerated orally but were considered shameful in writing by the linguistic authorities. Contractions remained in the shadows until the beginning of the 20th century, when opinion makers finally started coming to reason.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the fathers of modern linguistics established a very pertinent difference between language and speech, where the former comprises the entire regulatory structure which seeks to govern the implementation of the latter. Of course, Saussure was not referring to text messages, but rather to the natural and expected modifications that our language suffers when exposed in a given act of communication.
It should be noted that the general adoption of text messaging amongst pre-adolescents could be undermining their grammatical abilities. It is estimated that youth between the ages of 13 and 17 write more messages per month than any other age group – an average of 3,294 monthly messages.
What is not noted, at least in the e-mail chain, is that languages change (and with them, their regulations), be it by means of communication, from coming into contact with other languages, from the influence of one culture over another, etc.
For the Spanish version of this post, click here.