‘Props 2 u ma’am! Dat lecture u dlvrd 2day was amazing,’ was Anil Verma’s message to his teacher in appreciation of a talk she had delivered on ‘Good Governance and Accountability’ at Delhi University.
‘Son! The only two languages I understand are Hindi and English. I would appreciate if you communicate in them. If that is too difficult, wait till we meet to convey your message,’ was the reply Verma received from his teacher, whom he is reluctant to name.
For those of us who are still to get a hang of this new ‘language of communication’, Verma wanted to tell his teacher that he liked the lecture she gave and that proper respects were due for it.
It’s been several months and Verma confesses that he has been extra cautious while writing emails, messages or of late ‘whataspping’ to his teachers and those who are outside the ‘immediate circle of friends’. ‘I am so used to short forms and what we call "the cool language", that while writing to them I feel as if the "formal" version is a new form of language that I have learnt.’
But is the fear over changing language alarmist and have we really changed the language beyond recognition through our increased use of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter along with texting and instant messaging (IM) services such as SMS and WhatsApp, respectively.
Professor Anvita Abbi, chairperson Centre of Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has done some phenomenal work in the field of extinction of language and language groups, says linguists are not worried about these changes. She says that this ‘short formed’ version of English is just a different genre of the language. ‘Linguists don’t mind the new form. This is just an evolutionary process for language which is melted and moulded according to people’s needs,’ Abbi adds.
Those who worry about these changes are the purists, she says. Purists believe that the advent of IM and texting has led language down a destructive path: all that bad spelling and grammar, random punctuation, and all those abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons have harmed English.
Though Abbi considers the changes to be part of a normal, natural and historical process, she says the pace of the changes has been very fast. Recently the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added a series of words that are shortened versions of words and phrases used online such as ‘Srsly’ which is just a shortened version of seriously. While the addition of new words based on usage to OED is a regular process, what made the recent additions really amusing was the time span involved. ‘This breaks at least one OED rule, namely that a new word needs to be current for 10 years before consideration for inclusion. But it seems to be catching on,’ said OED’s chief editor John Simpson in a statement.
Telecom analyst Kunal Bajaj says, ‘Our devices through which we access Internet are getting smaller and so is the attention span of a common user. The consumer is concerned about convenience and short forms seem to provide that.’ ‘We have moved to a time where applications such as WhatsApp help you send voice messages, even videos in real time free of cost only by using your Internet data. Who is going to think about language here,’ Bajaj says.
But is this change exclusive to English, given the fact that almost the entire country is now connected through mobile phones? Abbi agrees with the fact that there has been an overpowering use of English because of the advent of this technology. Saurabh Dwivedi, a senior journalist with India Today digital and a Hindi scholar says, ‘Capitalism thrives by finishing diversity and creating "a single brand". This is what the advent of technology has done to language.’ Dwivedi says people are constantly talking and are in touch but the use of the same ‘lingo’ for everyone has killed the ‘personal touch’ that communication had till some time back when we were writing letters to each and other, for instance.
Bajaj, however, differs with this view. ‘India is such huge and varied market that no single language or form of expression can ever claim to be the single answer to the country’s consumers. Telecom firms are drawing up plans to tap the rural markets where till now using only multimedia downloads has been in vogue. Service providers have already started providing services in regional languages,’ he says.
‘If people use the same applications and platforms in regional languages, they are sure to develop their own short forms and slangs given the nature of the medium and the changed style of communication. This has more to do with the nature of the medium and not so much to do with language,’ Bajaj says.
Abbi is in full agreement with this line of thinking. She says: ‘We as a generation are constantly communicating through emails, messages, Facebook, Twitter, some even through letters today. But each medium requires a different form of writing. My students don’t write answers in short forms though they sometimes might take the liberty of texting me in that form,’ she adds with a smile. ‘I have told my students that I don’t understand all their short forms and therefore they desist from using them when they message me. Though certain short forms such as plz or asap are allowed,’ Abbi says. ‘We as linguists are happy to observe these changes in languages. It’s interesting to see its pace and growing popularity. A very interesting SMS that my student sent me read: Stuck at the hospital. Won’t be able to see u today. Regards. This is interesting because he paid attention to conveying regards but used u instead of you for convenience sake,’ she says.
Geeta Sheshu, consulting editor for The Hoot who writes for the website and also tweets, says, ‘The switch from writing for the website where I take care of the difference between their and there to Twitter where both can be used as "dere" for paucity of "character space" is not difficult, but it is definitely amusing how the mind makes the quick switch.’ But she concedes that the switch may not be equally easy for the younger generation. Sheshu, who has taught at a media school in Mumbai, says, ‘I had to constantly warn my students against using short forms in their assignments.’
‘Slangs and short forms may appear strange on platforms such as Twitter because of the dichotomous nature of the medium. While your message can be for a friend who you anyways address in an informal way to show endearment, the fact that public sees it may make it look like a travesty to the language. But these slangs were always being exchanged between friends they are only being exchanged differently - publicly,’ says a young entrepreneur and a Twitter enthusiast with over two thousand followers, on condition of anonymity.
He goes ahead to add that not everything on Twitter has been shortened and made informal. Platforms such as Storify that collect tweets, Facebook and Instagram data to build stories are more often than not very careful about the language used. Also the Twitter handles of some major news organisations are careful about the language used. ‘It depends on who is using the medium and for what purpose. On the same platform you have so many different groups as "friends and followers" that you keep switching from one genre of the language to another.
Prionka Jha, deputy news editor NDTV mobile services, says as an editorial policy we never make use of short forms while sending news messages to our clients. Even acronyms are avoided to whatever extent possible. The idea to communicate gets defeated if your consumer fails to make sense of the news sent to him even if you have managed to fit it in the given character limit. Asked about using the new words added to OED, she says ‘In journalism we only use words that we know can be easily understood. Even if a word has existed in the dictionary for several years but is complex, we avoid using it.’
‘While tweet is understood in common parlance, srsly is not and therefore as an editorial policy we will never use the word in our text messages being sent to the clients,’ Jha adds. The process of adding new words to the genre used in IM’s and SMSes and social media platforms may have been quick but for it to make an entry into other forms of writing may have to wait a little longer.