Lingua Longa Vita e Brevis?

Apr 19, 2010 by

The cartoon illustrates many people’s worry about what the Internet, text-messaging and other modern technologies are doing to the English language. When space (and time) is at a premium, we write U instead of you, NITE instead of night, and GR8 instead of great. But does this hurry go beyond using shorter spellings? Do we actually abandon the beautiful, flowery and perhaps even somewhat verbose English of yesteryear in favor of a more pithy, but abrupt style?

Incidentally, did you notice any “abbreviated” spellings in the previous sentence? Probably not, if you are used to the American spelling. But in Britain the word favor would be spelled favour (and color is spelled colour, etc.). These shorter American spellings of words in -our are a result of a modest success of Noah Webster’s attempts at spelling reform. He also chose s over c in words like defense, and changed the re to er in words like center and dropped one of the Ls in traveler. Among his less successful attempts at Americanizing the spelling is replacing tongue with tung.

To go back to the question posed earlier of whether verbose is giving way to pithy, the answer is not necessarily. Recent research by a Cornell professor Lee Humphreys, who has been comparing messages from Twitter and those from diaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, shows that the style (let alone language — the cognitive system that allows the production of these texts) did not change all that much. Here are some entries from the diaries studied by Dr. Humphreys:

April 27, 1770: Made Mead. At the assembly.
May 14, 1770: Mrs. Mascarene here and Mrs. Cownsheild. Taken very ill. The Doctor bled me. Took an anodyne.
Sept. 7, 1792: Fidelia Mirick here a visiting to-day.
Jan. 26, 1873: Cold disagreeable day. Felt very badly all day long and lay on the sofa all day. Nothing took place worth noting.

Dr. Humphreys conclusion?

“It’s helpful to put things into historical context. It’s amazing how much human nature hasn’t really changed all that much.”

Indeed. We no longer make mead, take anodyne or get bled by a doctor, but so many Facebook status updates read like “Nothing took place worth noting”!

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