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Reuben Abati: Social Media and The English Language



girl woman laptop studentI get confused these days reading many of the posts on social media, and text messages sent through cell phones, because of the kind of new English that young people now write. The English language is without doubt quite dynamic. In the last 200 years, it has lent itself to many innovations, as cultural, religious, and situational codes have transformed the language and extended the dictionary, with new words and idioms.

The kind of new English being written by twitter and what’s app users, particularly young people is however so frightening and lamentable, because it is beginning to creep into regular writing. Texting and tweeting is producing a generation of users of English, (it is worse that they are using English as a second language), who cannot write grammatically successful sentences. I was privileged to go through some applications that some young graduates submitted for job openings recently and I was scared.

This new group of English users does not know the difference between a comma and a colon. They have no regard for punctuation. They mix up pronouns, cannibalize verbs and adverbs, ignore punctuation; and violate all rules of lexis and syntax.  They seem to rely more on sound rather than formal meaning. My fear is that a generation being brought on twitter, Facebook, instagram and what’s app English is showing a lack of capacity to write meaningful prose, or communicate properly or even think correctly.

To an older generation who had to go through the rigour of being told to write proper English, and getting punished severely for speaking pidgin or vernacular or for making careless mistakes of grammar and punctuation, the kind of meta-English now being written by young people can be utterly confusing. The irony is that it makes sense to the young ones, and they can conduct long conversations in this strange version of the English language. I’d not be surprised if someday a novel gets written in this new English, which seems like a complete bastardization.

You may have come across the meta-English that I am trying to describe. It is English in sound, but in appearance it has been subjected to the punishment of excessive abbreviation, compression and modification. Hence, in place of the word “for”, you are likely to see “4”, and so the word “forget” becomes “4get”, or “4git”, “fortune” is written as “4tune”, “forever” as “4eva”. The word “see” has been pruned down to a single alphabet “C”, same with “you” now rendered as “u”. In effect, you are likely to read such strange things as  “cu” or “cya” meaning “see you.”

Some other words have suffered similar fate: “straight” is now written as “Str8”, “first” as “fess”; “will” as “wee” (I can’t figure out why), “house” is now “haus”; “help” has been reduced to “epp”; (“who have you epped?”) instead of the phrase “kind of”, what you get is “kinda”,“money” is simply “moni.”, the computer sign ”@” has effectively replaced the word “at”; “come” is now “cum”, the conjunction “and” is represented with an “n” or the sign &, “that” is now “dat”, “temporary” is likely to be written as “temp”, “are” as “r”, “your” as “ur”  “to” as “2”, “take” as “tk.” In place of “thank you”, you are likely to find “tank u”, “with” is now “wit” or “wif”, and “sorry” is commonly written as“sowie”.  I have also seen such expressions as “Hawayu?” (“How are you?”), or “Wia r d u?” (“where are the you?”).  The you? The me? The us?

By the time these new words get combined in what is supposed to be a sentence, you’d have a hard time looking for the sense beyond the sound. On many occasions, I have had to call the sender of such messages to explain what he or she is trying to communicate in simple English, and if it is on social media, I still often call for help. In recent times, I have encountered such messages as “This kidney gist is giving me heddik. I wee hold ya hand if you need kidney love you till we find a miraku. It kent happun pass dat.”  Try and help translate that into correct English. And how about this: “As fuel don add moni, everybody don park dem moto for haus.”  Pidgin English? Well, may be. Or this: “B/c we d p’pl thought #fuelscarcity was temp. with the fuel hike policy, high cost of living is now a perm cond’n in Ng.”

      Oftentimes, this special prose arrives amidst a number of other confusing symbols, emoticons, memes, acronyms and abbreviations, looking like a photographic combination of English and hieroglyphics.  Some of the more popular abbreviations include Lmao (“laughing my ass off”) lol (“laughing out loud”), lwkmd (“laughter wan kill man die”), stfu (“shut the fuck up”), omg (“Oh my God”), rofl (“Rolling on the floor with laughter”), uwc (“you are welcome”), smh (“shaking my head”) brb (“be right back”), #tbt (“throw-back Thursday”), #WCW (“Woman Crush Wednesday”), and such new words as “bae”, “boo”, “finz”, “famzing”, “Yaaay”. Not to talk of such expressions as “You should mute me now”; “get wifed-up”,  “birthday loading”, “you hammer”, “kwakwakwakwa.”

This paring down of language gets really worse when it is further reduced to mere jargon that is understood only by the young people who are adepts at it. You can take a look at your child’s text messages or BB or what’s app and not be able to make any sense out of the jumble of incorrect English, graphics, memes and pure lingo. The danger is that sexually suggestive conversations can be carried out by two young persons, texting each other, and a dinosaur-parent would have no idea.

What can any parent make out of the following for example: “10Q” (it means, thank you), “1174” (this means nude club), “121” (one to one), “143” (I love you), “182” (I hate you), “1daful” (Wonderful), “2BZ4UQT” (Too busy for you, cutey), “420” (Marijuana), “53X” (Sex); “9” (Parent is watching), “PAW” (Parents are watching); “99” (Parent is no longer watching), “ADIDAS” (All Day I Dream About Sex); “aight” (all right), “AITR” (Adult In The Room); “AML” (All My Love); “B4N” (Bye for now), “BF” (Best Friend) and “BFF” (Best Friend Forever). This resort to abbreviations, lingo and special English reveals certain things about the growing up generation. There is a fascination with speed- when they get on their phones and other appliances, they want to get the message out of the way as quickly as possible, and they have a lot to say. There is emphasis on secrecy and privacy: that’s why there is so much concern about third party presence.

Many of the children who have become socialized into this new mode of communication are not always able to differentiate between correct and incorrect English, and this is why parents and teachers must be concerned. It is possible to assume that the teaching of morphology and syntax in our various schools is no longer as rigorous as it used to be.

Anyone who was brought up in those days on a compulsory diet of Brighter Grammar By Ogundipe, Eckersley and Macaulay andPractical English by Ogundipe and Tregdigo) would find it difficult to write this new English being made popular on social media. It would feel like an act of murder. Teachers and parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children are able to learn the very minimum of skills: the ability to communicate in decent prose.  Some persons may well argue that this may not be the most important of skills required to live in a modern age, or that it doesn’t really matter in the long run, but I really doubt if a time will ever come when the business of communication will be reduced to a mastery of abbreviations and lingo.

The ability to write clearly strengthens a person’s ability to think clearly and to communicate effectively. It should not be surprising that many young persons these days, seem more at home in the world of gadgets and electronic appliances. They are forever texting or playing computer games and trapped in the electronic, virtual, space. They live both online and offline, spending a better part of their day on websites, thus, their emotional development is tied to this reality.  Most parents lack the knowledge of what happens in the social media, and while some parents are trying to learn very fast, a knowledge gap still exists between them and their more digitally savvy children.  But this should not result in the abdication of responsibility.

The abuse of the English language, and the inability to write well, is certainly not the only risk that an obsession with social media poses for young people. Parents also need to worry about addictiveness, exposure to inappropriate content and liaisons: all kinds of paedophiles and sexual predators operate online looking for innocent victims and luring them with sweet lingo.  There are bullies too, harassing and stalking their targets. Under ordinary circumstances, parents have a duty to teach their children basic etiquette: this is even more required as they relate with others and navigate both online and offline spaces.

Back to the issue of language, our despair is slightly moderated by the fact that the interface between man and technology through the social media has also resulted in much useful creativity. New words have been invented through the social media, which are now gradually finding their way into mainstream English and the dictionary. In 2013, the word “selfie”- referring to a photograph taken by oneself with a smartphone, or Ipad- was declared the Oxford Dictionary Word of The Year.

Similarly, such words as textspeak, texting, sexting, twitter troll, tweeps and emoticons, are becoming common words in regular, daily communication. Words like “friend”, “timeline”, block” and “like” have also assumed new meanings and recognition, the same with such other words as:  “unfriend”, “unlook” “twitter status”, “profile”, “trending”, “timeline”, “twitterati”, “blogging”, “bloggers”, “tweet”, “retweet”, “hashtag”: all of which have caught the attention of lexicographers as clear evidence of the living and evolving nature of the English language. If this is all that there is to social media and the English language, there probably would have been no cause for alarm, but the emergence of a generation of young Nigerians who cannot spell well, punctuate properly, or get their tenses right, because they now write social media English may have far-reaching implications for the use of English as a foreign language in our society.

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