Contrary to all the LOLs, emoticons and hashtags happening in feeds across the Twittersphere, Twitter isn't destroying the English language, it's making it better. The medium only allows for 140 character musings, lending itself to abbreviations that don't exactly follow conventional spelling or grammar rules. Linguist Noam Chomsky finds the whole thing appalling, calling it "very shallow communication" in an interview with DC blog Brightest Young Things. "It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication … It is not a medium of a serious interchange," he told Jeff Jetton. But while a few language snobs are in Chomsky's camp, the rest of the linguistic community doesn't exactly agree.
Twitter is all about slang and abbreviations, but it's just not eroding the English language. In fact, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman found the exact opposite: It's making it better. Some assume that Twitter using kids on the Interwebs are getting used to speaking in short bursts filled with non-sensical slang terms and therefore cannot communicate like the sophisticates of the olden days. "Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us," explained actor Ralph Fiennes, noted The Telegraph. Liberman decided to look into this so called word shortening phenomenon that's happening and it turns out to be completely false. Liberman compared recent tweets from Penn newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian's Twitter feed to text from Hamlet. "The mean word length in Hamlet (in modern spelling) was 3.99 characters; in P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, the mean word length was 4.05 characters; in the DP‘s tweets, the mean word length was 4.80 characters," he found, writing on linguistic blog Language Log.
And even if the type of communication doesn't live up to Chomsky's lofty English ideals, it might not matter much. It's a 21st century language tool and other linguists aren't about to ignore it. Feeds have become a research hub for others looking to study language and mood, as The New York Times's Ben Zimmer points out. "Social scientists can simply take advantage of Twitter’s stream to eavesdrop on a virtually limitless array of language in action," he writes. And they have. Linguists have looked at phenomenons like Twitter moods and Arab revolutions. Beyond mood and revolutions though, linguists have started to study the actual changes to the English language via Twitter. Zimmer points to a study by Carnegie Mellon researches that mapped regional language use across the country. "Like the profusion of hella as a form of emphasis in Northern California, as in, 'It’s hella cold out there,'" explains Zimmer. The study garnered criticism, but this is the type of research linguists do and Twitter just makes it that much easier, continues Zimmer. "The amount of data available for analysis is many orders of magnitude bigger than what could be collected with traditional dialect surveys," he writes. Whether Chomsky approves or not, Twitter's happening and it's really not all that bad. Language evolves, Twitter's just making it easier to track what's happening.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.