Netspeak: What’s the problem?

In Web writing on August 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Having worked as an ESL teacher for a while, you’d think I’d be a bit of a language pedant. In some respects I am, but one thing you learn from teaching students struggling with your language, and battling through a foreign language yourself, is that while pedantry is important, it’s not all. Creativity, and a sense of playfulness with words, are just as vital. I noticed that students who showed a basic knowledge of the structure of English, but occasionally made up words that sounded sort of right, ended up far more articulate than those who dared not utter a word until they were sure they were word perfect. In keeping the dialogue going, my less fearful students eventually learnt the right words: they weren’t shamed into silence, like so many others, and they started to enjoy the process of learning, rather than endure it. I tried to follow the example of these students in my own language learning adventures, once improvising a half schoolgirl German and half Russian conversation with a bemused German-speaking Russian librarian.

So, having become much more tolerant of improvisation with language (if not with weasel words and nouns that are made into verbs), I felt pained tonight to see yet another of those articles about how the English language is being belted around by the new generation. Though such articles inevitably repeat the same ideas, I always read them; if nothing else, it’s a way of expanding my vocab.This article has some new news, though, regarding the legal ramifications of not knowing internet jargon. In this article, I also learnt about Rickrolling. Although this is a word invented to explain a digital phenomenon, could there a better way to express the idea? Yes, it’s an in-joke, and pretty silly, but it is shared among millions, and, like much absurd humour, it’s catching. IMHO, if digital media are encouraging people to invent new words and acronyms, then all the better, even if those words never do quite make it into the OED (or the Macquarie). As the article notes, students are not turning in essays full of text speak – they are aware of genre – so where is the problem?

Quiz time

Now, for a quiz. The other day, I was inordinately proud of my re-purposing of the word ‘dollop’. As in its original use, my new ‘dollop’ is a noun. Here’s an example sentence, to help you guess the meaning: ‘He’s such a dollop!’

Any takers? Here’s another hint, if you want it.

  1. Hi! Thanks for this – I enjoyed your post. Yay! I’ve joined the club and been rickrolled. I had vaguely heard of the expression, but now I can share it amongst my friends .. and so it goes on.

    You may be interested in (another) article I recently read about language and the prevailing fear that it is being desecrated by text-speak. The evidence is clear that this is not the case, and that “the anxieties about literacy levels could well be redirected to a forceful critque of the present turgidity, the loss of subtlety and beauty in written English that is largely the result of the spread of managerial language.” See

    Interestingly, when I (accidently) came across my 13 year old son’s Facebook page, I was pleasantly surprised at his language. Unlike the majority of the entries, my son typed up words in their entirety, included all the necessary punctuation and his spelling was immaculate. God love him! (Maybe he knew his mum would read it?)

    • Hi devinegirrl,

      Thanks for your comment, and my apologies for the very late reply. After reading the article you recommended me, I’m thinking it would have been better to post the URL and the words ‘Yeah, what she saiid’. The contrast between the meaningless managerial speak and efficient net and textspeak and the misdirected scorn of the latter is definitely something worth getting annoyed and ranting to my friends about. So thanks! Am very happy for you that your son appears to be literate. I don’t think we give kids enough credit sometimes…


  2. Haha I always feel so old when I write things online or in a text message and I spell everything out properly. I’m only 22, but even as a teenager when MSN first started becoming popular and we all got mobile phones and started texting, and then Myspace and Facebook came along, I always got really indignant about the way people typed. Especially when it doesn’t even shorten the word or make it easier to type (like ‘realli’ instead of ‘really’) I don’t know, maybe I’ve always just been such a lit nerd and I like language too much. Maybe I’m just a snob 🙂

    These days, it doesn’t really bother me what other people do, but I’m still personally more inclined to write ‘haha’ than ‘lol.’ And I still always spell things out properly, even when i look ridiculous and it takes longer. I don’t know, I guess it just feels more natural to me.

    What I find really interesting though is when ‘netspeak’ slips into spoken language. Like people actually say ‘lol’ now instead of laughing. Is ‘lol’ in the dictionary yet? If it’s not, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

    Thanks (to both of you!) for sharing all those articles- some really interesting stuff! x

    • Hey missbec,

      I’m very impressed that you’ve managed to mellow out at 22. I’ve only just achieved that (and still to a very limited degree) a decade later in life. Seriously, though, I think it’s valuable to be able to uphold your own personal standards (and I think I’m probably a lot like you: the only net acronym I use regularly is ‘btw’) but also understand peoples’ motivations for having other standards. It’d just be nice to know that everyone has really thought out why they express themselves the way they do. But then, that’s just me being judgemental again. Surely any urge to communicate, even an unexamined urge, should be encouraged? Right? Err…

  3. I have a distant relative who uses textspeak in her school work. She spends A LOT of time online .

    I find the writer of The Age article hypocritical. Language changes with the culture (barbie, smokos). It begins as a fashion, then stays or goes depending on circumstances. If teachers or older generations can not understand, that’s normal. Teachers are meant to keep up with the students’ cultures (whether it’s digital culture or ethnic culture). The gap that’s opening between generations is sad, but it always happens. Those who fought during the World Wars vs those who never saw a conflict at all were so far apart, it caused problems.

    • Hey Esma,

      I agree, it’s a recurring problem, and also that teachers should try to keep up to a certain degree – or at least appreciate that they can’t control how their students express themselves out of hours, so to speak. I’m not sure if we have any reason to believe that this gap is any more bridgeable these days. This being said, a number of generations are using the Net simultaneously – perhaps there’s hope for a bit more connection.

      Nah, the status quo will reassert itself! What do you think?


  4. What each generation experiences is different. The status quo is here to stay.
    The Internet does bridges gap ONLINE. On forums, you get treated based on your ideas, not your age/sex.

  5. […] innovations, then we will have more in common and might understand one another better, right? On Jen’s latest post about Netspeak and the discussion of the generation gap, I commented that despite the equalising forces of […]

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