The most widely used word in 2014 was actually a symbol ❤, according to the Global Language Monitor’s Annual Survey of Global English. This represents the first time in the survey’s 15-year history that a symbol beat out an actual word for top honors. The year before it was the number 404, as in “not found” or “clueless.”
Textese – the word commonly referred to when describing the abbreviated and contextually simplified language (think OMG or PDA) made popular by the rise in cell phones and instant messaging is rapidly making its way into the lexicon of mainstream cultural use. Technological advances in cell phone communication and the now firmly embedded use of social media in our culture have lent (some would argue manufactured) new urgency for the need to communicate quickly and easily without the fusty-dusty time constraints of punctuation and conventional spelling. This is not however, without controversy. If it is a given that technology has forever changed the course of our shifting cultural and communication landscape as well as the speed at which it is traveled (the hashtag symbol # was the second most widely used “word” in case you’re wondering), what is somewhat less clear is if the associated lexicon is itself changing the culture.
Some say yes and not for the better.
And if language, as a great many scholars through the ages have asserted, is a reflection of the culture and character of the people who speak it, what might words like LOL and TMI imply about the current mindset of Western culture and the direction in which it is headed? Or, as a more extreme example, what if the recent coinage of a word like ghosting (the act of ending a relationship by not responding to calls or texts or emails and essentially cutting off all electronic contact without any explanation) is both a reflection of how technology has influenced our behavior and moreover how the increasingly mainstream use of the word may accordingly increase the prevalence of the behavior itself?
Bemoaning the death of proper English language usage is nothing new. It’s the intellectual’s version of that old canard, “When I was a kid I had to walk 10 miles to school, uphill in both directions!” It’s the “Get off my lawn!” of the less linguistically flexible and open-minded among us who often have a fundamental aversion to any facet of change, language or otherwise. But hold on, what if there is evidence that language – both what it includes and variously excludes – does in fact have a shading effect on the disposition of its speaker and his or her worldview?
Made popular in the 1940s, Benjamin Whorf’s theory of language relativity, in its extreme, concluded that language not only dictates the behavior of a culture, but – as with various Native American tribes – can limit or prohibit a culture’s ability to understand even basic concepts such as the flow of time or identifying simple objects or actions such as falling. His theory rested primarily on the idea that if a culture does not have a word for a particular idea or object, it will not be able to communicate or understand said object or concept. Both the general public, as well as the more esoteric community of academics and scientists embraced his findings and left it at that for more than a quarter of a century. Interestingly, however, it is Whorf’s skill as a writer and mastery of the ability to convey dry, tedious concepts into dazzling language that is largely responsible for his success rather than any hard evidence to support his far-flung ideas and in the 1970s, linguist and MIT professor Noam Chomsky rebutted and essentially decimated Whorf’s claims with his assertion that human language is an innate biological function, rather than a learned cultural feature and that furthermore, the evidence supporting what is more or less a universal pattern of grammar (referred to as Chomsky’s Theory of Universal Grammar or UG) illustrates that languages do not differ from one another in significant ways, and therefore do not lead to a notable difference in thought processes among various cultures.
Nearly 40 years on, research is ongoing and while the serious-minded continue to dismiss Whorf’s overly simplistic claims, many do not wholly embrace the notion that language does not at least shade our outlook and disposition in relation to the world around us.
Take, for example the idea of privacy. If I were to say in English that I was having lunch with a friend, my audience would be left in the dark as to whether my friend was male or female. Some may consider this important, others may not, but it is my prerogative to tell or not to tell those who are curious. If I related the same information to you in Spanish, however, I would be afforded no such luxury because the very structure of the language requires me to choose either a male or female gendered verb to describe my lunch plans.
Studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s regarding language and its gender assignment to inanimate objects and concepts uncovered interesting, if arguably insignificant, differences in perception and understanding. Researchers conducted experiments between native Spanish speakers and native speakers of German (both languages that assign gender to words) by showing them identical flash cards and quizzing them about their respective impression of the various objects depicted. Each group saw 24 cards depicting items with opposing genders in their respective languages (in Spanish, the word key is feminine but in German it is masculine). Researchers then asked subjects from each group to use three words to describe each item. Subjects in the Spanish-speaking group described the characteristics of the key with words such as golden and intricate and lovely, whereas German-speaking subjects chose words like useful and jagged and hard. The same applied to pictures describing a bridge (masculine in Spanish, feminine in German), with Germans calling it slender and elegant and beautiful, while Spanish speakers referred to it as big and sturdy and strong.
More recently, research surrounding our perception of color and how it relates to our native language has turned up new and interesting information, as well. The English language, for instance, is replete with words to describe the color spectrum, while other cultures are less focused on the subject. More specifically, blue and green are distinctly separate colors to English speakers while people in many other languages group them less specifically into shades of the same color.
In having lived in Japan and married a native Japanese speaker, I have personal experience with this phenomenon in that my husband has been heard at times to grumble at drivers in front of him, “The light’s blue, you can go now!” much to my initial confusion, subsequent exasperation and ultimate amusement – the latter two of which have effectively eliminated the quirk. Japanese has two separate words – midori for green and ao for blue – but historically, the two colors are both considered different shades of blue.
While this quirk in no way proves that my husband is actually colorblind (as I believed for many years), or that speakers of languages that assign gender do not implicitly understand that inanimate objects are not actually male or female, the idea that perhaps learning one’s native language at a time of critical development skews or tints our emotional landscape and colors (pun intended) our associations with the world around us is nonetheless interesting if not earth-shakingly significant.
Returning to the topic of textese, it is possibly helpful to consider the words of Roman Jakobson, who posited that languages differ essentially in what they must convey, rather than in what they may convey and that if they influence our minds and possibly our behavior in different ways, it is less a case of what they allow or prohibit and more a case of what they encourage or oblige. With that in mind, we may conclude the following:
Words that combine to describe simple truths about our culture – for example shaking my head or SMH, and laughing out loud or LOL – are not of any real pressing concern, but the jury’s still out on bad behavior such as ghosting and whether it’s the ease of technology that may lead us to treat each other with increasingly less respect and compassion or the rapidly shifting language we use to describe it.