My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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dystruktshun of inglesh as we no

We all know teens can’t spell. And parents blame technology. And they’re partially right.

In talking with teens, the lack of available namespace is something that regularly comes up. They can’t get the screenname they want on AIM or the URL they want on MySpace. So, they go with alternate spellings. It’s fascinating to talk to them about how they started mucking with the spelling of words to create accounts on this that or the other system. Can we blame the lack of meaningful namespaces for the destruction of English? Perhaps.

Once on these systems, they want to create a unique identity, something that really identifies them, something that has “personality.” Personality… personalization. Why not personalize the English language? Suh-weet. This makes it fun and expressive. (My favorite part of this is that when someone goes to copy/paste an AIM into Xanga, they have to be very careful to change the spelling to that person’s style if they’re going to mod the copy/paste and pretend like that was the real conversation.) So maybe we can blame the fact that teens are stuck at home, bored, and wanting to be expressive?

SMS is, of course, taking this to a whole new level. This is pretty well known outside of the US where SMS-speak has destroyed native tongues everywhere, but we’re only about a year into massive texting adoption amongst teens in the States. Now, they’re trying to be expressive using as few characters as possible. Remember when secretaries used to learn shorthand? Imagine how fast a teen today would be at that. Maybe we should train them to be secretaries and give them phones? Scratch that. But once again, the solution to a technological limitation is to mess with the English language. Hmm.

The English language is not actually that stable. Go check out some Old English texts and you’ll see all sorts of peculiar spelling of familiar words. It took a long time for English to evolve to its current structure. I can’t help but wonder if that evolution just sped up.

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19 comments to dystruktshun of inglesh as we no

  • The practice of spelling your handle in an idiosyncratic way to establish your namespace territory dates back at least as far as the early days of graffiti in NYC and Philly.

    The early graffiti writers played games with the spelling, and of course the shape, of their names. It only seems fitting that this generation should do the same using the digital tools available to them. (IMHO, the kids of the UAE get the most points for style, rocking the whole Unicode character set!)

  • And parents blame technology – I wonder if those parents have seen this:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1078649.stm , granted, it’s just talking about boys, but, they didn’t have any girls in the test, and my gut feeling is that it would have the same effect.

    As far as English changing, yes, it’s quite a changeable thing – I’m not sure how it compares to other languages, I know that German has been “tidied up” quite a bit recently, I’m not so sure about other languages. It’s just not helped by the range of sounds you can get from the same letter combination! (rough, cough, bough, through …)

    It seems to have stabilised (or should that be stabilized?!) over the last few hundred years, which I’d thought was due primarily to the printing presses.

    Incidentally, I saw a post you wrote a couple of days ago about

  • I’M IN UR CULTUREZ

    CHANGIN UR SPELLINGZ

  • I love all this stuff! It’s nothing to be scared of, and to my mind, “destruction” is overstating the case just a little 🙂

    I’m going to be talking about this (and about the future of language vs technology in general) at Reboot:
    http://www.reboot.dk/artefact-1223-en.html

  • As a French teacher, I was asked this question (are blogs destroying our children’s spelling?) a couple of years back. My take on it is that compared to 15-20 years ago, most of the kids’ “writing activity” goes on in uncontrolled environments. When I was at school, if I wrote, it was usually at school. With pressure to have correct spelling, or I’d have to correct it / get a bad mark. Or I’d be writing a letter to my Grandma (better check the spelling there too).

    Today’s teen spends most of his/her writing time on IM, in e-mails or text messages, or in blogs/SN. Peer pressure to “write correctly” can’t really be said to exist.

    Text messaging has brought to them abbreviations. I remember discovering (stupefied!) that one could abbreviate words when I was in 9th grade (tjs=toujours, bcp=beaucoup). Now, kids know all these — and many more “bastard abbreviations” (jta=je t’adore) that might make our older skin crawl.

    I’d say that there are two ways in which teens’ writing today is “modified” by their writing habits:

    – peer spaces (“uncontrolled” regarding “proper writing”) => funky spelling and disregard for “grammatical rules”
    – length limitation (SMS) => abbreviations

  • As you suggest, the minimalism of texting as had a huge impact in the UK, both in terms of poor spelling in younger people and desparately sad attempts at hipness in oldies who seem to think that because it’s a text they have to adapt their spelling or seem uncool.

  • Its not only been the youth that have done this, but also look at technologists going back some thirty or more years. Eric Raymond’s New Hacker Dictionary is a great source on this.

  • Danah, professors David Crystal and Naomi S. Baron, for instance, have written pretty interesting things about that. The Crystal’s book is now available also in a new and reviewed edition of 2006 (that I can’t find on the USA Amazon, I bought it on the UK one).

    For other languages, I don’t think that it’s always true that “outside of the US where SMS-speak has destroyed native tongues everywhere”.

    In Italy, a Country that has led the market for many years as number of mobile phones’ users (and also for number of sent SMS, I think), the abbreviations so often used in SMS are not making our teens’ spelling worse.

    It’s also a matter of the language itself, that is (nearly) always pronounced as it is written. So, we don’t have spelling contests and playing with abbreviations won’t make you any better or any worse at it.

    We too have some studies and some books about it, but they’re in Italian, of course… 😉

    I totally agree with Stephanie, anyway: now most of the writing is done outside the school, especially all the creative aspects of it.

    But, is it bad? I mean, we (my generation, at high school in the Seventies) were writing _only_ at school. And what a bore… These today teens are writing _both_ at school and on mobile phones (or on the Internet). So, if teachers are still good at it, they should be able to teach, as always, and to students that now, perhaps, are more interested in writing as an essential communication medium.

    Ciao, Fabio.

  • I find this post really interesting for a couple of reasons, namely that I’m completely surprised by the way you couch this discussion in terms of “destruction of English.” At first I thought you were being knowingly ironic, but it doesn’t seem that you are…and it surprises me, because you’re such an advocate of recognizing online spaces as sites of creativity for teens (and others), and by the same token an outspoken critic of the media’s fearmongering w/r/t online activities (e.g. the internet’s not ruining social life; all teens aren’t posting nude photos; predators aren’t as plentiful as some would have you think). At least, that is how I’ve interpreted your work and blog musings.

    And yet here, you are (in this post) echoing the same tropes put forth in public discourse about what an awful, deleterious, revolutionary, unprecedented, and harmful effect the internet is having on language, and English in particular. I doubt that you ultimately believe they’re harmful, but using the term “destruction” immediately signals that you do. But the same anti-fearmongering attitude about online social life can be extended to online language: there’s nothing there to be “destroyed” or “ruined,” as languages are constantly changing, and you (and some commenters above) are right that English is among the more pliable of languages with long-established print traditions. You might say a language is endangered by language shift effected by the internet or even SMS (i.e., more people using English to communicate online = less people using their native languages to communicate online = English replacing native language), and maybe this is what is meant by the claim that SMS-speak is “destroying native tongues” – but I haven’t seen such research, so please point me towards it if you can.

    My point is, talking about “destruction of English” or any other language reflects the same kind of ideologies that cause people to freak out about teens being online: the internet is a scary weird place, and because linguistic practice is so integral to it, and because of language ideologies of Standard or Normal English already present, and because language is always a socially divisive practice, some of that fear of the internet easily gets projected onto language. I’d be happy for the media to re-frame these changes as “creation” or “creativity” or hell, even just “changes,” rather than “destruction” – because “destruction” implies that there’s a set Thing that SMS/Netspeak are somehow rapidly chipping away at, and that we should spend a lot of time worrying about it. There isn’t, and they’re not, and I don’t think we should, unless it’s to better understand what people are actually doing and how we can integrate that/accommodate that with our educational practices.

    Crispin Thurlow has an excellent piece in JCMC on the media’s construction of these ideologies, btw. And, I’ll be giving a related paper at AoIR 8.

  • Cathexys

    It’s not just teens. When I was looking for an LJ user name four years ago, the one I wanted was taken. I changed the spelling, and have had several people tell me that they’re misspelling cathexis these days on a regular basis 🙂

    Then again, there’s also a sense of making a word your own, making it *your* name. I think it might be connected to our obsession with individualism and the wide variances when you look at actual names, where often dozens of spellings co-exist, from Kaitlynne to Antwon.

  • moco

    “This is pretty well known outside of the US where SMS-speak has destroyed native tongues everywhere, but we’re only about a year into massive texting adoption amongst teens in the States.”

    “Destroyed native tongues”? that’s pretty heavy handed, and if your hope that this is just a natural evolution of English, why can’t it have been evolution in other languages, too?

  • moco

    also I just noticed your note: “Accurate spelling is necessary or the comment” will be junked. Interesting in that you could be filtering out ppl who use the spelling you are citing.

  • Lauren – i think in my attempt to be pithy, i miscommunicated what i’m thinking. I do believe that English as we know it is being destroyed (or perhaps radically altered… i chose destruction because it was more fun to spell than altered), but i don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that languages evolve (spelling, grammar, pronunciation, etc.) and what i suspect is taking place is that the evolutionary process is moving much faster than before, making it easier to spot and to get concerned. I think that the “OMG the world is ending” panic is foolish because languages always evolve. So i tend to find the whole thing funny. At the same time, i think that the technology is playing a big role in this. And i think it’s interesting to think about how technology’s affordances are shaping the current changes as well as speed of change. But in *no* way am i advocating that people should try to stop this change. I’m more curious as to where it will go and what pushback will happen because of the speed of change. I mean, we know that teachers are trying to maintain status quo, but the fact is that teens barely write anything in the American “No Child Left Behind” curriculum so i doubt that “traditional” English writing going to be valued tremendously. ::shrug:: I just think it’s fascinating. But sorry for not being clear.

  • I actually find this ‘destruction’ really fascinating. Language is rarely truly logical or followed strict rules IMO, and for linguists, this evolution must be extremely interesting to study. Teens usually struggle with language register, mainly due to the large difference between expression between peers and expression needed when dealing with ‘authority’ figures. Indeed, I experience the same problem in foreign languages… English in the UK is also evolving due to the influence of ethnic minority styles of expression (e.g. the ‘innit’ stuck at the end of a sentence). OK, teens do need to know the difference between the different language registers, but that’s another matter. Kids will be kids, and they stimulate change – which often makes older people uncomfortable… Despite all this, some people buck the trend: my mom seems to know way more SMS slang than I do!

  • Suw

    As someone whose name is based on a misspelling of my own, I’m not one to talk! However, I think that technology amplifies existing behaviours, so my gut feeling is that this seems worse than it is.

    We won’t know for a while yet what sort of long-term impact this txt and l33t-style spelling has on current teens’ spelling and grammar as they mature. I know a lot of adults, for example, who can t4lk p3rf3c7ly w2ll 1n l33t, but we all know when l33t is amusing and when it is inappropriate. I’d never write a business email in l33t or txt or any other of the lax spelling/grammatical styles I use on Twitter or IM or IRC, because I want to present a particular facet of myself – my businessperson side.

    So the question is, as these teens mature past their early 20s and into that period of life where it becomes important to be able to present a serious and professional side of yourself to those you hope will pay you a living, will they be able to adapt to more formal styles of communication? I suspect that yes, they will, because they’ll have to. If they don’t, then we have a problem because clear and professional communications skills are going to be even more important in the future than they are now, particularly with this increasing trend towards knowledge-based jobs and the collapse (you see it especially in the UK) of the manufacturing sector.

    I’d also like to make the point about native languages that aren’t English. I can only discuss my second language, Welsh, but I do know that teens in Welsh are doing the same thing by creating txt abbreviations of common words. Welsh speakers are also making increasing use of the internet as a venue to use and preserve their language, so I actually think the net is a valuable part of the future of native/minority languages rather than inevitably an erosive force.

  • Here’s a little piece about SMS abbreviations used in Italy: http://www.beginningwithi.com/italy/lang/italiansmsspeak.html

    Aside: I find your blog hard to read with the tiny font (not a candidate for Lasik myself), but if I increase the font, the comments get cut off on the right side.

    I wish all blog software themes were not designed by 20 year olds – when they reach 45 themselves they’ll realize why they never kept any older readers…

  • I suspect that it’s not just an issue of 20-year olds… i designed this myself, but i’ve only ever tested it on a Mac – i have no idea what it looks like on a PC. I desperately want someone to redesign my blog but i haven’t had time to deal with that.

  • Steve

    danah,

    The trends you discuss are rooted, at least in part, in practices that predate cyberspace.

    For instance, in my Junior High days in the late fifties early sixties it was not uncommon for girls to “personalize” their names. Most common was the inversion of “i” and “y”. Thus Terry became Terri, Trudy changed to Trudi, Linda morphed into Lynda. etc.

    We also see in those days the beginnings of abbreviation slang. Who hasn’t seen a yearbook signed KIT, or a letter marked SWAK. And I think it was during the early seventies, if not earlier, that “tough” metmorphasized into “tuff” as a term of approval and coolness.

    The rise of cyberspace certainly accelerated those trends, but in no way originated them.

    So, lets jump forward in time.

    It’s been most of a generation, probably several generations of teen culture, since the origin of online chat in venues like IRC. I never saw much IRC, because I didn’t like the quick pace or the brevity. I was always more of a usenet guy. But I was aware of the abbrevation conventions, and by the time I discovered Yahoo chat, which I did log onto occasionally, the trend was in full swing, lol. U no?

    And the motivation is obvious. Chat is a high paced medium with severe limitation on effective bandwidth. Thus the motivation for adopting ad hoc compression algorithims is obvious.

    And there are a couple of other streams leading into this river. One is the “133t” speech of the hacker community. As far as I know, this was motivated by pure desire for coolness. Interestingly, it seems to mark the first large scale entry into the lingustic mods game for young males, which had previously been more of a female domain. Perhaps we are seeing the rise of equal opportunity social insecurity.

    And then there’s the rap/hip-hop community. I know almost nothing about that, except that the lingustic mods present there appear to eerily mirror those found online. What is cause, what is effect, and what is convergent evolution I wouldn’t venture to guess.

    And, in doing a little googling to write this, I have come across references to gamer slang. I will not pursue that, but it is probably worth taking a look at.

    Have fun,
    -Steve

  • written/spoken language used to mutate only according to historical and territorial dynamics. for example, present-day scottish and southern US english are spoken differently because of time and place [very broad generalization]. interesting then how language maybe be mutating now according to the characteristics of digital space and the devices we use to interface within it. double interesting: how that digital version of a language gets inserted back into physical space in a constant feedback loop.