By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City on a Hill Press Editor

It happened at a party.

I was facing a stranger, red cup in hand, talking about nothing in particular. Conversation was pleasant and, as he was telling me about the antics of his housemates, I laughed.

The tide of storytelling turned to me. I related tales about my rambunctious siblings, which usually elicit at least a chuckle. But instead of laughter or giggles, my punch lines were greeted with a sonorous “ROFL!”


This threw me. I had no idea what “ROFL” meant. Not wanting to seem uncool, I let it slide without conveying too much confusion, but I was perplexed.

I soon found out “ROFL” is shorthand for “rolling on the floor laughing.” And following the discovery, I began to notice people using similar tech-speak abbreviations in face-to-face conversations. “LOL,” “BTW,” and “WTF” were sprinkled throughout sentences without hesitation.

This technologically charged linguistic hybrid hints that we have become a society of technophiles. As computers and cell phones have become more affordable and inclusive, nearly every generation and socioeconomic demographic has some level of access to their once-elite technology.

A new, digital language has sprung forth in the wake of this access, bringing with it enthusiasm, creativity, and of course, convenience.

Any computer user — or anyone who can do quick math, for that matter — will tell you it’s easier to type six letters rather than six full words, especially when the shorter of the two conveys exactly the same information as the longer.

Text messaging has become immensely popular in recent years, probably due to its conciseness and convenience. According to a survey by the Nielsen Company, which tracks consumer data for cell phone companies, the number of text messages increased 450 percent in 2008 from two years prior.

Nic Covey, director of insights for mobile service for the Telecom Practice of the Nielsen Company, says this trend is a result of the advent of unlimited texting plans from the major cell phone providers.

“Texting begets texting,” he added. “It’s a habit that lends itself to people adopting texting and doing it more and more.”

People aged 18 to 24, on average, sent 790 text messages in the second quarter of Nielsen research in 2008. This is significantly more than people aged 25 to 34, who sent 331 texts. However, both of these numbers pale in comparison to the 1,742 texts sent by cell phone users aged 13 to 17.

The data in itself is innocuous. However, what some fear is that the increasing reliance on digital technology to communicate is leading to a rueful transformation of the way people speak and write in the nondigital arena.

“Well, [communication] is mostly brief and to-the-point, and I don’t really exaggerate,” said Jason Gonzalez, a recent UC Santa Cruz graduate, referring to how he communicates via e-mail and text message. “I just pass on the information.”

Gonzalez said he speaks with normal diction and vocabulary in face-to-face conversation, but has noticed people around him saying “LOL,” “OMG,” and “WTF” freely.

Jocelyn Shratter, a fifth-year from Cowell, said she has heard people’s speech change due to increased dependence on cell phones and computers for communication.

“[There is] definitely some of the slang which has crept in from AIM and stuff like that, like ‘LOL,’ ‘BRB,’ ‘BTW,’” she said. “Then also, just in general, [I’ve noticed] it’s not necessarily so urgent to get information conveyed immediately.”

Parents, teachers, and scholars fear that the English language is being corrupted, shortened, and simplified for convenience and laziness as tech-speak has crept into the younger generation’s spoken and written language.

British author John Humphrys may have articulated this fear best in an article entitled “I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language.”

Texters, he wrote, are “vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbors 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation, savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.”

Urban legends abound surrounding text messaging, from turning kids into deplorable spellers to actually lowering texters’ IQs.

Oxford linguist David Crystal wanted to look into these vilifying claims against text messaging. He published his findings in “Txting: The Gr8 Db8.”

Crystal concluded that while the debate is not settled, the belief that text messaging is fundamentally changing the English language and making people more stupid is not true.

He found that only 10 percent of words in text messages were actually abbreviated, and that in order to successfully text, one must be literate in the first place. He also determined that text messages are evidentiary to a sophisticated understanding of English and other languages.

James McCloskey, chairman of UCSC’s linguistics department, explained that language has always evolved both around, and because of, technological developments.

“Languages have always been as available to their speakers as the words they need to do the work they need to do, the social and intellectual work; so it’d be very surprising with the advent of these new technologies to not make available words, phrases. That’s something we expect any technology to be able to do,” he said. “Fishing had that effect. Manuscript writing had that effect. Every new technology has had that effect.”

McCloskey explained that using abbreviations and rebuses — substitutions of pictures, numbers or phrases for actual words — has been a common practice since the Middle Ages.

“If you look at the kind of shortcuts people use on the Net, in text messaging — ‘LOL,’ ‘BTW,’ and so forth — you’ll find exact analogues of these in medieval manuscripts,” McCloskey said. “In fact, the oldest [are from] the seventh and eighth centuries.”

McCloskey further noted that he is skeptical about whether computers and cell phones are profoundly altering spoken language.

“I haven’t seen any evidence myself yet that it’s having any transformative effect or lasting, deep effect on the way language works, or the way language is learned, or the way language is used,” he said.

This is not to say that tech-slang isn’t being adopted into our vernacular.

“It’s weird because I think people talk in acronyms a lot, which is absurd, but it’s true,” said Kim Gallagher, a second-year Stevenson student. “It just shows how lazy we are.”

While McCloskey and others are not seeing a drastic change in people’s speech, a more tangible transformation can often be seen in written language. McCloskey thinks that computer use has actually improved the writing of young people.

“One of the things I’ve noticed: younger people generally write better than they used to,” he said. “And I suspect it’s because people write more [and] e-mail constantly to each other. Nothing turns you into a better writer than writing.”

Matthew Lasar, a history lecturer at UCSC, frequent blogger, and contributor to, agrees with this assessment but also acknowledges the flip side to digitally influenced writing.

“The writing is kind of sloppy,” he said. “It tends to be pretty slapdashed. I see it spread into the term papers I receive with no spell-checking.”

Lasar pointed out that modern life is fragmented, with one person doing many things all at once, usually on the same device. This is great for multitasking, he said, but often at the expense of quality.

“There’s a general rushedness that has come into everyday life,” he said. “You’ll hear of employers that are a bit stunned by the résumés that show a lack of carefulness. Misspelled words, misspelled phrases. Some of that comes from social networking and Internet writing.”

An online search turns out dozens of — albeit isolated — stories about students handing in assignments composed completely in tech-speak, with rebuses galore and no vowels.

Crystal found that most people, however, know when and where to use tech-speak.

Lasar, for one, is amazed at the expressive range of abbreviations and emoticons.

“As far as these abbreviations, they really are a remarkable thing,” he said. “People are coming up with new ones all the time. I have to look them up on Google. The emoticons that people use are completely useful … as [far as] conveying intention.”

Perhaps the biggest issue at hand, though, is not whether English is being ruined in the digital age, but whether one byproduct of rampant digital communication is a loss of intimacy in human-to-human interactions.

Fourth-year art major Jody Brown has strong opinions about this side of the argument.

“[The cell phone] allows people not to have face-to-face interactions with people anymore,” he said. “Let’s take, for example, the text message. OK, so you text people. But are you losing something by not being able to have a conversation with somebody anymore? Can you say everything in a text that you would in a conversation?”

Our generation came of age with the Internet. We are basically its earliest mainstream users, and therefore pioneers of the language that comes with it. But many people would agree that in pioneering this type of language, we have lost a significant amount of connection and understanding as once-intimate conversations have become digitized.

Technology will continue to play an important role in our lives, perhaps blurring the lines between our informal and formal communications. However it plays out, though, McCloskey agrees with many fellow linguists that English isn’t changing in any real, fundamental way, though debate on the subject has been present since time immemorial.

“There’s a famous text from Middle English, the 15th century,” he said. “[It says] that the English we have today is being completely destroyed by all these colloquialisms, these barbarisms, it’s not the same language. That kind of commentary is as old as language, probably.”