Wordplay March 2013

Why Drag It Out?

An investigation into what inspires soooo many people to toss extra letters into their text messages
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Nishant Choksi

"Hiiiii," he texted. “Hiiiii,” I responded. “How are youuuuu?”

Rest assured: I am an adult. I even write for a living—often about grammar, punctuation, and how we use words in these tech-enhanced times.

My phone buzzed again. “Fiiiiiine,” he replied. Almost involuntarily, I responded: “What are you doooooing? I misssss youuuuu!”

Evvvvverywherrrre, from instant messages to texts to tweets and even e‑mails, I see examples of what language watchers call “word lengthening.” The habit began among teens and 20-somethings, but it is no longer limited to them. Adults are adding o’s to their no’s, s’s to their yes’es, and i’s to their hi’s, to say nothing of a glut of exclamation points. In response to some recent news, my 60-something mom wrote, “LOVE IT AND YOU TOO!!!!” What is going on?

For the past five years, Sali Tagliamonte, a linguist at the University of Toronto, has been gathering digital-communications data from students. In analyzing nearly 4 million words, she’s found some interesting patterns. “This reduplication of letters, it’s not all crazy,” she told me. Certain vowels—o, a, and e—are the most-frequent candidates for multiplication. Words are most frequently elongated by two or three letters at a time. Elongations are common in instant messaging and texting, but less frequent in e-mail. And as with other linguistic trends—Tagliamonte mentioned the use of like for quotation and so for intensification (“I was like, ‘That’s so funny!’ ”)—“women are at the forefront.”

But why is anyone adding extra letters in the first place? Blame our ever-loosening standards for written language, our desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely, and the brief time we devote to creating an electronic message. Perhaps, suggests Michael Erard, a linguist and the author of Babel No More, we’re simply trying to incorporate aspects of verbal speech into our digital communications. “When people talk, they use intonation in a number of varied and subtle ways,” he told me. “There’s a lot of emotional nuance that can be conveyed that you can’t do in writing.”

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer, notes that elongations, like emoticons and initialisms (OMG! LOL!), tend to flourish in those venues most starved for nuance. “When you’re dealing with IM, texting, and Twitter, those discursive functions that add to the simple message are really crucial,” he said. These tactics suggest that the process linguists call “accommodation”—the way speaking styles converge when humans talk to one another, facilitating both conversation and a sense of common identity—is not limited to spoken communication. “We’re navigating different registers all the time, finding out what’s appropriate,” Zimmer said. But “when those registers don’t match our expectations”—when our best friend begins a text with “Dear Jennifer,” or someone responds Hello to our Hiiiiiii—“that’s when we wonder if things are running afoul.”

Tagliamonte suggested a test: try communicating with someone I was close to without using elongations, and see how quickly I’d get a response of “What’s wrong?” I wrote, via IM, “Hello. How are you?” to my boyfriend. His response belied no concern, so I explained, “I was attempting to be disaffected in my Gchat to see if you noticed.”

“I could kiiiinda tell,” he wrote. “Fewer i’s.”

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