Grammar Wars III: Return of Newspeak

Grammar Wars III: Return of Newspeak

You knew this was going to happen, right? Hopefully, it won’t mean I come back in a few years with three more posts that grossly disappoint everyone.

The reason for yet another grammar article was, you guessed it, another embarrassing gaff on my part. As before, I believe it illustrates another interesting point in modern grammar; the effect technology is having on grammar and the language and the gradual shift towards fulfilling George Orwell‘s prediction of Newspeak.

In Grammar Wars, I looked at how the priorities of grammar can change in different genres or platforms. Then, in Grammar Wars II, I discussed the traps and issues involved in editing and proofreading your own work. This time, I’m looking at those times where proofreading and editing don’t even come into play.

Putting the Twit in Twitter

You may be astounded to know that I received third prize in Smithereens Blog‘s recent Putting the Wit in Twitter competition. Sadly, the additional publicity caused me great embarrassment as a basic grammatical gaff was held up for every other online writer to see and chuckle. In a nutshell, the task was to produce something original and witty, within the 140 character limit of Twitter.

There was a Twitter from Nantucket
Who’s tweets could never quite cut it
He’d try to be brief
Causing some grief
But ran out of letters.Oh F

I’ve previously admitted to my Achilles heel with the possessive form of ‘it’. Of course, ‘it’ is not the only irregular possessive, with ‘who’ also coming in for special mention. Bang — there it is. Instead of using the correct possessive construction ‘whose’, I made the common schoolboy mistake.

Daniel defended my mistake admirably on his blog, assuring his loyal readers that such a mistake could only be a typo and not an illustration of ignorance, and this much (I would like to believe) is true. But does that excuse typos? Are typos just as damaging to a piece of writing than basic grammatical errors and is there really a distinction between them?

Really, there is no excuse either way. A writer proofreads and edits to catch such mistakes. We all make them. Not a single writer can work without making mistakes and typos that have to be caught in the proofreading stage. But what if proofreading and editing isn’t part of the process?

Technology versus Grammar

My daughter sends me phone text messages. A lot. Being sixteen, SMS is her preferred form of communication it seems, and as a result I am frequently presented with short messages that bear little relation to Standard English.

Whereas we may bemoan the destruction of the language through text messaging, online we commit many of the same sins every day, even if they are only unintended typos. Twitter is a fantastic example of an environment where grammar takes a back seat to brevity and the normal checks and balances don’t apply.

Twitter, SMS, instant messaging, even to a certain extent blog comments and forum posts, all are ephemeral and instantaneous forms of writing. The idea is transmitted to the world in seconds as we use the fewest number of characters to create the message and hit enter before there has been any chance to review and correct. These messages are not written to serve the language but for more basic reasons.

“Pick up milk on way home.” “Kimota is having cheese toasties for lunch.” “Wow, your post is really rad.” Hemingway they’ll never be, but this form of writing is not intended to last the ages. They’re not even intended to last the lunch break. They last no longer than it takes the recipient to process and forget. Messaging is an instantaneous event from thought to publication, skipping entirely the steps of composition, drafting, proofreading and editing that slowed the communication of ideas so much for our ancestors dealing with pen and paper.

When typing a message into Twitter, I find myself conditioned to bash keys and hit submit in a quick, single thought. Rarely do I stare and craft a tweet, with my mouse hovering impatiently over the submit button.

Orwell’s Newspeak Prediction Fulfilled?

The new technologies are side-stepping our internal editors, encouraging us to ‘publish and be damned’ as quickly and with as few characters as possible. This has led to the development of new sub-languages, based around convenient abbreviations. Lol, rofl, bbs, and the irritating habit of dropping vowels to shorten words have become so common place that it would not surprise me if over time we don’t see the development of an entirely new form of communication, with a different grammar. Just as Pidgin English was developed by traders and merchants to cross the language barriers in centuries past, a compromise borne out of necessity, Newspeak (as Orwell would call it) seeks to adapt the language to fit our new technological world.

Maybe Orwell was closer in his predictions than some would think. Newspeak, suggested in 1984, involved the systematic eradication and reduction of words to simplify the language into the most basic and simplistic of forms. Although the new language and grammatical shifts brought on by modern technology are unlikely to result in words being banned, there is certainly a strong possibility that Newspeak could become the new Pidgin, enabling more convenient communication with less reliance on grammar and conforming to the tendencies displayed in online language.

What do you think? Double-plus good or double-plus not good?


  1. I’m a radical descriptivist, so it doesn’t bother me in the least. 😉
    Actually, what you’re talking about has already happened several times in the last 150 years or more. With the advent of the telegraph, language needed to be curtailed for that communication channel, but didn’t impact normal discourse. True, in the case of tweets and text messages the effected audience is larger so there will surely be some bleed into other forms of communication, but I don’t think they’ll be a big or hairy as many worry.
    Stenographers, for example, take shorthand. But when a group of stenographers and court reporters get together their speech is not markedly different from others. The modes of communication appropriate for one channel aren’t necessarily preferable or even adaptable to another. No one’s going to start saying “ell oh ell” unless he’s ironic, or Comic Book Guy.
    Also, I think it’s interesting that in some forms of communication we’re losing vowels. Hebrew gets by fine without them; I’d be interested to see how English could manage.

  2. I don’t see the connection between text messaging and Newspeak. Newspeak was created by the government in “1984” to try to prevent people talking about certain things. And *it didn’t work.* Text messaging is a simplified orthography developed for the restricted environments of cellphones. The two are nothing alike.

  3. I wouldn’t call that “Newspeak”. Orwell’s Newspeak seeks to obscure meaning through the subversion of language — utterances no longer *mean* in Newspeak.
    Txt-speak is, if nothing else, an effort to *mean*. It is an adaptation to the medium of communication, not a subversion of it. Granted, the meaning conveyed may be silly, boring, even trivial — but it’s still meaning, it is still an effort to connect with another person.
    Newspeak was always about *breaking* connections with other people.

  4. Kimota says

    Hi guys, and interesting thoughts. I wasn’t suggesting that the way we use text messaging or instant messaging was intended to break or reduce communication and made the distinction that the modern phenomenon wasn’t about banning words for political means. Instead of a political agenda, it is an agenda of technological convenience. But both Newspeak and the modern technological developments have the effect of simplifying and reducing the language to fit character limits and instant submissions at the expense of grammar and the breadth of vocabulary.
    I would, however, argue that the issues of grammar brought about by the changes can have an affect on meaning and communication. By reducing or simplifying the language in any way, the capacity to convey detailed or nuanced meaning becomes obscured. If all the synonyms available for describing a concept – such as great hilarity – are reduced to ‘lol’, ‘rofl’ and a couple of others, meaning is conveyed quickly and easily but at the loss of greater variety and style.
    To answer goofy’s point, the phenomenon I’m talking about isn’t restricted to mobile phones and goes further than merely ‘lol’ and the rest. Online communication – in fact anything where the incentive is to use as few characters as possible and hit enter as quickly as possible (like Twitter) – is adjusting the way we use and react to language. Without the internal editor correcting grammar and with the proofreading process removed by the instant gratification of that ‘submit’ button, the language will shift.
    R.A. Porter, I was suggesting that, instead of replacing normal English usage, we may see the development of a simplified Pidgin language running alongside – which I chose to call Newspeak. (Pidgin evolved to allow communication between different language and cultural groups in areas of multi-culturalism. This phenomenon is purely dictated by technology within a single language group and culture, and hence isn’t really a Pidgin dialect, but something new.)

  5. Love the Twitter Limerick. As for the gaff, all rules of grammar disappear within the Twitter-verse.

  6. An inveterate Twitterer, my first reaction upon discovering your blunder was relief that correcting it wouldn’t affect your character count.

  7. You say that the language is being simplied or reduced. But as far as I can see what is being simplified or reduced is the orthography. And there’s no evidence that changing an orthography harms a language.
    If you’re saying that the vocabulary of computer-mediated communication is reduced, I’m skeptical. And even if it is, a smaller vocabulary does not necessarily harm a language either. Different languages have different vocabulary sizes, number of synonyms, etc.
    You wrote: “Online communication – in fact anything where the incentive is to use as few characters as possible and hit enter as quickly as possible (like Twitter) – is adjusting the way we use and react to language. Without the internal editor correcting grammar and with the proofreading process removed by the instant gratification of that ‘submit’ button, the language will shift.”
    Shift in what way? And how will it be bad? Because we’re using less letters? Because we’re not editing what we write? This isn’t the first time English writers have not had editors.

  8. Kimota says

    I get what you’re saying, goofy, but orthography doesn’t cover grammar. Orthography merely refers to the system used to write down a specific language. Some languages have one orthography, some have two. For example, the Greeks are now using two orthographies, the greek alphabet and ours.
    What I am talking about here is that grammar and word usage is beginning to shift through technology, two thihngs not covered by orthography. Certainly, some symbols change as well, which is covered by orthography and there is certainly an online orthography that is different to offline English – using symbols to add meaningful context with smilies, for example.
    The fact that people are responding to this post to say Twitter is not a place for grammar indicates different rules are in play and these will develop, evolve and grow over time.
    Also, I didn’t actually suggest this was bad. I merely commented that we could see the development of another parrallel language, in much the same way as Pidgin was created. We would communicate differently and with different rules of usage between on and offline. I left suggestions on whether this was bad or good to the commenters.
    But, in my opinon, a smaller language with lesser grammar would be restrictive. One of the wonderful things about English is the massive vocabulary – the largest in the world – with synonyms for every ccasion and indicating subtle shades of meaning, coupled with context and grammar. An online Pidgin or Newspeak would be without these benefits.

  9. I have heard that English has the largest vocabulary, but I haven’t seen any numbers – and it’s difficult to measure anyway, since the concept of “word” is very hard to define cross-linguistically. But you seem to be assuming that more words equal better communication, and this is not evident at all. We don’t have to encode every concept in single lexical items – in fact we don’t, we paraphrase all the time. We can still communicate a concept even if we don’t have a single lexical item for it.
    I see that you didn’t comment on whether it would be good or bad, but the mention of Newspeak certainly implies bad.
    Pidgins have simplified grammars. But I don’t see why computer-mediated communication should have a simplified grammar. If it’s being used by native English speakers, it’s going to have a full grammar of a natural natively-spoken language – altho this may be different than the grammar of standard written English. And you haven’t provided any evidence that the grammar of CMC English is somehow restricted.

  10. Actually, the dominance of English as the language with the largest vocabulary isn’t a rumour, but established fact. The concept of ‘word’ is very easy to define – the OED does it every day in deciding what is to be included and what isn’t, whether the word is slang or obsolete, and therefore whether it is a concrete entry into the language. I refer you to the following link that contains more references and citations for English being the largest language than I could possibly ever amass myself.
    Interestingly enough, people do conflict on the actual numbers, but this has more to do with whether they include technical words, archaic words etc. Even without these, it seems English is streets ahead of second place, which falls to German.
    You dispute my assertion that more words equals better communication. I, along with many scholars, see the richness of synonyms in the English language as a huge boon to communicating subtle meaning. Yet, you then go on to explain how “we don’t have to encode every concept in single lexical terms – we paraphrase all the time”, which proves my point. We have more than one choice to encode a concept in english – in some other languages there is only one choice. We can paraphrase by selecting synonyms, other languages are distinctly limited in their ability to do this. This wealth of synonyms allows much greater depth in writing. Let’s take just one example – “laugh”. I can say “you laughed”, but I can also say “you sniggered” or “you chortled” or “you snickered” or “you chuckled” or “you guffawed”, etc etc. Each choice carries with it a slight difference in meaning. Snickering is slightly mean-spirited, while chortling is more jolly. This is what I mean by the wealth of subtle shades of meaning our language provides us.
    Online though, the choice of the word may become more influenced by character count than by subtle shading. In fact, “laff” has become a common term to represent the entire concept as a simple four-letter word.
    As for the simplification of grammar, the proof is in the pudding. Spend a day on Twitter and you will see grammar sacrificed for brevity frequently. As this becomes more accepted, new rules will form. Maybe not tomorrow, but over time. Language can take decades or centuries to shift – Pidgin didn’t develop overnight, the moment ships rolled into a foreign harbour.
    One of the first standards of grammar that seems to be under threat is the comma. Although a common mistake and contrary to every style guide, comma usage is down so far that some experts are making some scenarios optional rather than essential. I currently have a new copywriter working under me at work who just completed her journalism qualification. When I sub her work, it is the comma usage that needs to be corrected, because it is no longer treated as such an essential compnent as it once was. Online, this ‘optional’ comma usage becomes even more common.
    Yes, online communication with develop its own grammar, and we agree on this. I argue that, out of necessity, this grammar will become simplified purely due to character and word counts. I would suggest someone that doesn’t agree with that hasn’t spent hours a day on Twitter trying to get a message across in 140 characters or less 😉

  11. The notion that English has the largest vocabulary is certainly not established fact.
    We might be able to count the words in English is (altho I don’t think we can, see below), but how do we agree on a definition of “word” that works in all languages? Because if we can’t agree on a cross-linguistic definition of “word” then it’s pointless to speculate on which language has the largest vocabulary.
    In fact it’s very difficult to define “word” cross-linguistically. Some languages form “words” by adding affixes to a base, to create something that English speakers would call a “sentence”. For instance Turkish “atlarymnehrindekoshtu”: ‘My horse ran in the river.’
    Some linguists try to answer the question “what is a word”:
    “There is no clear-cut way of defining ‘word’, even in written language. Only some language put gaps between ‘words’ as English, French and Portuguese do. Thai, for example can write a whole sentence with no gaps, and Chinese puts gaps between morphemes.”
    The link you provide has quotes about how many words are in English. But it has nothing to say about how this compares to other languages – except two of the links. The piece by Michael Angier makes some claims without any evidence, so I don’t have much faith in it. The Planet Forums state “according to traditional estimates” German and French have less words. Is this actually true? And anyway, traditional estimates aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Are “run”, “ran”, “running” 1 word or 3 words? What about numbers – there’s an infinite number right there. What about dialectal words, variant spellings, recently borrowed words? According to OED editor Jesse Sheidlower, no one knows how many words there are in English, because it’s very hard to agree on the basics.
    In linguistics, it is generally agreed that all languages are roughly equal in complexity and expressive power. A concept that can be conveyed in one language can be conveyed in all languages. Some languages might be more efficient than others at communicated certain concepts (i.e., use less lexical items), but we have not yet found a language that cannot convey a concept that another language can convey. Your assertion that more words imply better communication implies that languages with small vocabularies are worse at communication than languages with larger vocabularies (assuming we can compare vocabulary size across languages, and we can’t). Imagine for the purposes of argument that we have determined that language X has less words than English. Would you assume that language X is impoverished and that speakers of language X cannot communicate as well as speakers of English?
    You still haven’t provided evidence that the grammar computer-mediated English is simplified. Commas are not grammar, commas are part of orthography. We can communicate perfectly well without commas – I do every time I speak. Many languages don’t use the comma – in fact many languages have no writing system at all. But all languages have grammar.

  12. Definitely doubleplusungood. I myself have noticed the similarities between ‘texting’ language and Orwellian Newspeak.

  13. johnthesavagefrombnw says

    I beleive it’s a form of Newspeak simply because the purpose of Newspeak was to remove meaningful, and intelligent communication thus preventing dissent. Txting is a convenient form of communication that prevents true communication to take place.

    Think about the next generation that grows up with this shorthand, and becomes accustomed to communicating in short bursts with txt and twitter. Logical and intellectual thought shared between individuals would be totally eliminated if you could only communicate using 160 characters at a time. Thankfully there is still robust communication occurring in person, but many’s lives and relationships have gone “digital” and many people are withdrawing to a large extent from the more real relationships we do not experience on Facebook, Twitter, and txt.