The world currently parades about 6,500 spoken languages, with some already threatened by possibility of extinction. Once upon a time, social status was measured by accent, grammar, vocabulary and other nuances that showed luminous knowledge of the English language. Certain things may be old value, but they would continue to remain relevant. One of such is the use of the English language — both in written and spoken forms.
With the social media, we are exposed to the dominant model for exchanging views by the popular culture of our time. Social media language which, in some quarters, has been termed vulgate is, undeniably, at the barricade with modern English.
A synopsis of various reports and researches on languages holds that Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most spoken language, with about 1.9 billion speakers; and then Spanish, with 406 million speakers. The English language is third, with about 335 million speakers. Russian and French follow closely.
There are large uncertainties around these estimates, as it involves all speakers, including the native ones. English is not a sequestered language. It is the most widely spoken language in the world, given that about 53 countries deploy it as the official language. It is also the most widely taught foreign language and it has more than 50 per cent of its content rooted in Latin and French.
The figure on language usage for the Internet is also an unquestionable reason to be bothered about social media incursion into the main artery of the language. About 27 per cent of people using the Internet communicate in English, while another 25 per cent communicate in Chinese. Spanish is next, with eight per cent. Also substantial is the knowledge that about 55 per cent of content on the internet and social networks are written in English. Russian and German follow with 6.1 per cent and 5.3 cent respectively.
I have listened to people of the older generation countless times get riled about the way young people disregard grammar and ignore correct spellings. I have also heard my lecturer friends complain bitterly about how script marking is now an art, as what they are most times inundated with are “textese” (text languages and tweet slangs).
The social desirability of social media language would keep this trend alive and might bring about a quick evolution in the English language. This was the same language The Economist, in 1996, said was “impregnably established as the world’s standard language” and “an intrinsic part of the global communication revolution.” Adults would need to really take it in good faith when they ask someone of my generation or the one after what’s going on somewhere and the response is — Marriage thingz! It’s our new language.
On the flipside, since languages morph based on continuous use and interaction, should we celebrate the future of the English language, especially since we know that the social media would not be going away anytime soon? New technology spawns new words, just like all new culture does. To debate that it is wrong would be to argue against the vast fluidity of language.
The beauty of social media language lies in its brevity. When text messages came and cost was a consideration, it was appropriate to try cramping an idea into 160 characters, which was the limit. Then came twitter, with 140 characters; and the silliest of abbreviations and other truncated spellings have found space.
But again, does it imply that people do not know how to spell any longer? Maybe there is usually a consideration for the medium and the audience, but when we begin to see such leaks — even in formal documents — then maybe there is a rethink that it is the evidence of the absence of such knowledge. At this rate, Doug Atchison’s 2006 movie — Akeelah and the Bee — may soon have no audience.
Does having to sacrifice words make us better writer or corrodes our language use? Is it just about the idea or the means through which the ideas are conveyed? Soon, there’s a chance that words with longer spellings that have shorter synonyms may become extinct from non-use. Maybe it’s best not to see in one direction. While the social media is not an outright harm to the English language, it is also not an outright plus to it. Technology cannot be our albatross. It is possibly our use of it that is.
What would people of the last century think about people’s grammar and spelling today? Errors in punctuations, capitalisation of words, especially pronouns, are now consistently available. It is scary how we are taking such liberty with a valued language. We will soon have to find solution for the growing number of young people whose answer or response to almost all queries is “Lol.” So convenient, right?
The Oxford English Dictionary, the book of words, already has OMG (Oh My God, Oh My Goodness, or Oh My Gosh), IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) and a number of other new abbreviated phrases in it. Would proper English soon become foreign? The real drawback is whether we would soon have a time when speaking or writing in proper Queen’s English would be abominable. It would also be when we have children who would not know the pleasure of a good writing and would not be able to enjoy reading the books of this time or speak with panache outside of the social networks. If you need evidence, rummage through online posts and forum and there you will find them.
I am, nevertheless, amazed at the level of conversation that can happen in 140 characters and even less. It’s disturbing, though, when the idea is to pass across a complex message in an isolated 140 characters. And maybe it’s really about the user not being able to creatively pass across an idea, based on the parameter. There is that fast and steady decomposition of grammar, syntax and other aspects of language and it is not a Nigerian thing; it’s global.
Social technologies would remain; but would the classiness of our lingua franca stay? With the rise in number of blogs, one is justifiably concerned about the quality of the writing. There’s a sublime rejection for the English language of elegance. The pop words and abbreviations are it for now.
William Shakespeare and Noah Webster (a name synonymous with dictionary) contributed more words to the English language than any other person. Webster, who gave the world the first dictionary, went as far as learning 26 languages to achieve that feat. Today, it’s crowd sourcing and the only requirement is to have the word popular. Let’s continue the discussion on Twitter @SolaFagro.