Saturday 13 August 2011

Breaking rules, or making them?

Developments in technology shape the way we think about uses of language, as I’ve noted before. They naturally shape those uses too. We once developed telephone-, telegram-, television- and telefax-appropriate language, for example, in the same way that we’re currently developing language uses which fit the cyber-goodies on offer in the communicative market.

All of this means change, a word which, unlike the word development, often carries quite negative connotations, particularly when applied to language. Discussions (fights, rather?) about language change belong right there with politics, religion, football, and other allegiance-arousing topics that make us blow our tops off on short notice – or inspire us to produce masterpieces like Taylor Mali’s poem Totally like whatever, you know?, here in a video animation by Ronnie Bruce.

Language changes because it has to. If it didn’t, or couldn’t, or shouldn’t, we would have no use for it. Children teach us this, not just because they’re apprentice users of language and so naturally probe it in their rookie ways, but mostly because they probe it to make use of it in the world in which they’re growing up, which is different both from the world of the adults around them, and from the world in which those adults grew up. We mostly dismiss child ways of using language on account of the overall cuteness of child-like behaviour, reassuring ourselves that our adorable little ones eventually grow out of “it” to join our own humdrum linguistic fold. But then they don’t, and morph instead into teenagers, who, apparently by definition, do not so much use language as maul it.

Teenagers are routinely blamed for all sorts of woes betiding language uses. This includes intriguing claims that they may wield power to destroy the languages that they so (mis)use, no less. If you read Portuguese, you can check out one example of this, in a (now archived) warning that Grafia alterada utilizada por adolescentes pode comprometer futuro da língua portuguesa (‘Teens’ orthographic changes may jeopardise the future of the Portuguese language’). The piece is about the apparently lethal combination of adolescence and mobile technology, where new keyboard-friendly spellings spell (literally) the doom of the august Portuguese language as a whole. You can also read my response to this piece of logic, Adolescentes, telemóveis e a língua portuguesa (‘Teenagers, mobile phones and the Portuguese language’), where I argue that what’s going on is a quest for making Portuguese usable through a medium which is new to it.

In recent years, teen language uses have been the object of extensive study, notably by Scandinavian scholars like J. Normann Jørgensen (Love Ya Hate Ya), and Anna-Brita Stenström and colleagues (COLT – The Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language), who also reported on Youngspeak in a Multilingual Perspective. What these studies show is that teens do with their language(s) exactly what everyone else does too: they adopt those languages that serve their needs, and adapt them to whatever matters to them, here and now. Languages like smsing and txting are native languages, as it were, to a new generation of human beings.

I don’t see significant differences between what happened to languages when the printing press came along their way, and what teens (and the rest of us) go on doing with our languages: it’s all about making new, unwieldy little print symbols fit what we want to say. Printed forms of language, now as before, test our abilities to tackle the multimodality of representations to which languages lend themselves, making it clear that representations of languages are not the languages that they represent. Kay O’Halloran and Bradley Smith’s new book, Multimodal Studies, tells us all about this.

Being multimodal, like being multilingual, draws our attention to patterns of language use that we’ve neglected in favour of monolithic views of language. Standardised uses of txt are emerging, from the languages which use txt, as surely as they did for other printed forms of language. No one is breaking any rules, because there are no rules (yet) for what is going on: we’re witnessing the birth and growth of rule-making instead, as it is happening. The added twist is that emerging cyber-friendly rules concern printed forms of language, which we’ve learnt to associate with formal uses, but cross over to represent chatty, laid-back uses. We are learning to print as we speak, which was the whole point of developing printed language in the first place.

Next time, I’ll talk some more about standards, those that we’ve somehow come to associate with beauty – and ugliness.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Languages and beauty contests. Saturday 27th August 2011. 


  1. Hi Madalena,
    Interestingly you speak about making or breaking rules with language. There were some good points in your blog. Yet you have this BIG static copyright notice on your sidebar that is from the printing era, instead of a Creative Commons License from the multimodal era, just a thought.

  2. Thank you for your comment and your tip, ulimasao!



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