Every generation complains about the corruption and “dumbing down” of language by their youth. Particularly in the realm of typed language, the new forms of expression (the all too familiar “LOL”s and “OMG”s) are largely seen as a degeneration and oversimplification of language. However, many linguists and cognitive scientists, including Steven Pinker (Harvard professor and popular author of The Language Instinct) argue that rather than a devolution, language is simply taking on new forms as part of a natural and historical process of evolution, which is being accelerated by the computer and mobile phone.
This particular evolutionary action is being irreversibly and overwhelmingly influenced by technology. Our relatively young tools (the internet, smartphones, social media) have brought new and laughably simplistic expressive arrangements. Tom Chatfield says that abbreviations like OMG veil complexities that we are largely unaware of. In the case of both OMG and LOL, terms that are considered infants in English lexicon, (and entered the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2011) in fact have older roots than one might imagine. According to Chatfield, OMG goes back to 1917, appearing in a letter from Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher to Winston Churchill. The relevant phrase follows, “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis – O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) – Shower it on the Admiralty!”
Linguist David Crystal has this to say about LOL: the abbreviation rarely indicates that the person is actually laughing out loud, but on the contrary constitutes a type of “stage direction”, a means of conveying conversational emotions that writing usually cannot. Crystal claims that this remarkably ingenuity in typed language is an innovation that makes this form of communication as “efficiently dynamic” as spoken language is. Of course, all the shades and variations of this term (ROFL, LMAO etc) develop and intensify this self-awareness in typed word.
This minimalism inherent in digital language is closely related to Pinker’s ideas on the evolution of language, in particular his ideas about slang. His opinion of the place of slang in modern language is highly relevant: “many terms that start off as slang become part of the language, and people forget what they originally meant. So words like clever and banter and mob and bully, which are just sort of English now, at the time they were considered slang innovations that had to be stomped out because they were corrupting the language”.
Thus, even that which is called non-standard English (not taught in grammar lessons) can be as complex as standard English. As long there has been attention to language, there has been the claim that language is deteriorating – the often-maligned contractions we notice and use every day through mediums like Facebook and Twitter are evidence of a frenetic evolutionary process. Because the briefest and most efficient terms are used, new and often sophisticated levels of meaning and performance are gathering within a relatively small handful of characters and letters. To use Chatfield’s phrase, this all points towards the central paradox of digital language.