Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dialects and twitterary criticism

When I was 21 years old (so long ago, rope was a new invention), I lit out for the territory, driving from my native Texas to attend graduate school in Pittsburgh, in large part simply to learn what Yankees were like. I’ve never been the same.

On the drive north, I spent much time fretting over how to talk to Northerners. The greeting was the first and the most problematic issue. I feared that my Texas accent and my choice of words would lead to ridicule.

I wondered if people Up There greeted each other the way we real people did. Whenever we hailed each other, it was with a simple “Hey” or, even more commonly, “Haddy!” — a word I’ve mentioned before that rhymes with “caddy” and was the way we Texans said “Hidy,” our version of “Hi.”

So I worried as I emigrated, driving north and practicing what I thought might be right: Hello, Hi, Hi there, How are you, Good day. Gosh, I was lost; it was hopeless. I stopped rehearsing and vowed simply to be mute until I had observed enough to parrot what they said.

Of course, it all worked out. I learned that my fears were mostly unfounded, that I could — and should — say whatever came to mind without forethought; that other people offered many, many different styles of greeting; and that the Yankee I married would even occasionally ask me to “talk Texan” … and she still does.

Here’s the surprising part of the story: I have a point to make. Yes! Even though it’s been buried, here it is. How you talk is often influenced by where you are, by the context of the communication, and that’s just fine.

Kids who are born and spend a few years in one part of the country and then move with their families to another will often become bi-dialectal. They’ll play with their new neighbors outdoors, speaking with the patois of those new friends, and revert to the dialect of their own family when they’re in the house.

I feel pretty confident that the same transformation can occur, will occur, in fact does occur with today’s young people as they move from technology-based talking to formal writing, from daily talk to giving a speech, and so on.

Many people lament the fact that kids use a “terrible” form of language when they utilize text messaging, instant messaging, tweets, email, etc. I don’t think we need to worry. I think that just as I went from Texan to other sounds in my daily speech, today’s technology-using young people will change as well. Just as little kids change their language from the playground to indoors with family, context will triumph over technology. (Or with it.)

Your young person might spend hours a day typing short, cryptic messages onto some electronic medium — a cell phone with texting, a computer … any of a slew of PDAs (personal digital assistants). You might wring your hands over messages filled with “brb,” “lmao,” “OMG,” “lulz” and countless other codes. I say relax.

Just because (or “b/c”) texters use abbreviations and other tech slang throughout those communications does not mean that they will use them in all other settings. It’s no different from using slang with friends but not when making a class presentation. They will know, or can be taught, how different contexts call for different language, different dialects.

I mentioned “tweeting” above. That’s the term for messages sent over Twitter, a program that lets you communicate in messages of 140 (or fewer) characters. Twitter often is disparaged because, for instance, “I don’t need to know every time you have a bagel.” In many ways that’s a shortsighted complaint, in that Twitter facilitates easy and quick communications that can be very useful – following breaking news, updating relatives on hospital situations, reporting things that matter to those who “follow” you.

And think about those parameters. Imagine what a good exercise it is to write something in 140 characters (including punctuation and spaces) max. I think it was Pascal who wrote: “I’m sorry for the long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

If you’re a teacher, you must like that kind of discipline for your students; it forces them to focus, to write with attention and precision. The preceding sentence is 141 characters. Can you effectively remove one character? Twitter people can, even the young ones. Let’s say hello to a new age of talking: Haddy.