Why LOLCats ruined my English

Mar 09 2011 Published by under From the Melodye Files

The talented writer and polyglot Robert Lane Greene has a short guest blog in yesterday's NY Times today suggesting that (as Emily Anthes recapped on Twitter): "Perhaps we're seeing more grammatical mistakes because literacy is on the rise."

In the post, Greene scrutinizes the prescriptivist rallying cry that language is in a perpetual decline and must be enshrined (quick!) before it's too late.  He trots out the usual counter-arguments: linguistic change is constant and inevitable; linguistic change is not necessarily bad ("when a good thing changes it can become another good thing"); and so on.

The most interesting claim Greene makes comes at the end of the post, when he notes that illiteracy rates have plummeted over the last century, to virtually zero.  However, as he is quick to point out:

Literacy is a continuum of skills. Basic education now reaches virtually all Americans.  But many among the poorest have the weakest skills in formal English.

This, he thinks, is to blame for the rise of misplaced apostrophes and teen-text speak.  It's a truly interesting observation, but one I think he squanders in his conclusion.

Even though he continues to rail against prescriptivism (saying, for example, that it is "far from obvious" that language is declining), he makes frequent use of prescriptivist language in doing so (claiming that "more people are writing with poor grammar and mechanics").  By using words like "poor" and "weakest," he's tacitly making the same value judgments that prescriptivists do.

Fair enough, I suppose.  But this seems like a lost opportunity to more deeply consider what prescriptivism is for (standardization) and what it's fighting against (variation).

In fairness to Greene, this is a lost opportunity that may well have been due to space constraints.  So let's just say I'm picking up where he left off:

The reason formal grammar is taught in schools, is because we are aiming both to conventionalize, and even 'crystalize,' our language according to certain norms, and to make it more uniformly patterned (this is why we are taught 'rules' that are supposed to apply broadly).  Education is one forcible means of (attempting to) root out non-standard 'grammars' (such as African American Vernacular English) and of homogenizing usage [1].  So Greene is right to point out that the weaker one's educational background, the less likely one is to be thoroughly inured in these norms.

However, there are a couple of additional points I think are well worth exploring.

Perhaps the most obvious is that school is but one way of imparting these standards; popular media (film, TV, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, and so on) is another.  The proliferation of media in the modern world is absolutely unprecedented, and this has consequences too.  As Joshua Foer points out, our reading habits have dramatically changed:

In his essay “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as printed books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading.

This is true not only of books, of course; it's true of just about everything.  Now, more than ever, we have the unsettling power to choose: what we read, what we watch, what we listen to, what we consume, and so on.  Surprisingly, this can actually work strongly against conventionalization.  In one study I worked on at Stanford, we found that fiction and non-fiction readers' sensitivity to various distributions of words sharply diverged.  To translate that into non-psych babble: we found that because fiction and non-fiction readers read differently, their representations of English become measurably different over time.

If you think about it, that's sort of incredible: we were sampling from the (really strikingly) homogenous population of Stanford undergraduates - all well educated, all native English speakers - and we still found impressive variation.  So not only is language changing over time, it is - at this very moment in time - diversifying.

Of course, I'm over-simplifying here, because media pushes in both directions.  In one sense, it can act to disseminate conventions.  For example, if hoards of Americans are watching the same TV shows and reading the same books (and, according to one Zipfian analysis, they are), then they are all 'drinking from the same well' so to speak; they are all tuning their representations to the loudest cultural signal.  This works against the development of the kind of strong regional variation seen in the UK, for example [2].  This is the top-down effect of media and other social institutions.

However, the bottom-up effect, I was describing before, is becoming increasingly powerful: First, we have choice, and now more than ever, a means of exercising it.  Minor authors, musicians, artists and so on, have existed for time immemorial, but with the Internet (and, more precisely, with Google), we have a filter that allows us to find them.  You don't need to live in Austin to have heard of Voxtrot, and you don't need to be British to have read A.A. Gill (not that he's minor, but nevermind).  Perhaps more importantly, the Internet age cultivates bottom-up phenomena, in which small trends rapidly turn global (the unconventional are rapidly conventionalized) and self-selecting communities (ranging from 4Chan to, er, NAMBLA), forge and disperse their own norms, be they ethical, sexual, comedic, or linguistic.  These days, they say, you don't have to go to San Francisco to be openly gay; you can go online.

Just think about how different this is from the days when the one book almost everyone owned and read was - the Bible.

So, to pull the strings together: I agree that part of what's driving linguistic variation may be, as Greene argues, a lack of strong "top-down" constraints on variation.  Basic literacy has exploded, but not well-normed literacy, and that probably has a lot to do with the massive educational disparities that exist in this country.  On a societal scale, our education system is clearly failing to get everyone 'up to standards' [3].

On the other hand, many of the trends that prescriptivists are bent on quashing are surely bottom-up.  I know for a fact that my addiction to LOLCatz has more or less ruined my grammar (these days I am frequently inclined to declaim, "I is going!" or to query, "You can haz it?" - formal 'rules' be damned).  Similarly, palling around with a Brit for the last couple of years has introduced such delightful phrases into my vocabulary as 'fit,' 'shite,' 'nicked,' 'mate,' and 'lorry' and has prompted a regular  (if curious) substitution of 'what' for 'that.'  It's also (uncontroversially) done wonders for my prosody.  My linguistic foibles - or, more properly, idiosyncrasies - are the result of individual choice: what I take to be funny and whom I choose to associate with (and whether I really feel like tacking the 'm' on the end of 'who-' to make it formally 'correct') [4].  Teen 'text-speak' is just more of the same.

In short, variation's causal web is far more complex than simply 'education.'

In broadening our picture of the forces at work in language change, we might also consider how English is being influenced from the outside.  According to one statistic, there are now something like three times as many non-native speakers of English as there are native speakers.  English is thus being reappropriated by foreign speakers, both on our shores (in the tides of immigrants that come to this country) and off it (in English creoles and pidgins, and in widespread lexical borrowing), and these reformulations are, in turn, shifting the normative space of what is acceptable.  Just think:

The largest English-speaking nation in the world, the United States, has only about 20 percent of the world's English speakers. In Asia alone, an estimated 350 million people speak English, about the same as the combined English-speaking populations of Britain, the United States and Canada.

Thus the English language no longer "belongs" to its native speakers but to the world, just as organized soccer, say, is an international sport that is no longer associated with its origins in Britain.

So should prescriptivists be worried?  Hard to say.  On the one hand, as English 'diversifies' as a language - as foreign speakers and text-emboldened teenagers remix it - we might expect language change to start speeding up, as more 'errors' and idiosyncrasies are introduced [6].  On the other hand, as the population of English speakers grows ever larger, it may be less likely for any given innovation to sweep across the entire language and take hold.  Thus, what is 'standard' may remain so, even with expanding pockets of variation.

Finally, we might ask what role prescriptivism plays - and should continue to play - in modern life.  In theory, there is real utility in imposing standards through education - these standards are meant to get everyone 'on the same page' and provide a form of cultural unity through language.  On the other hand, they (seemingly) legitimize discrimination against those populations whose English is non-standard (certain African American communities being a prime example).  By being taught black-and-white rules for "what is right and what is WRONG," we learn to see language in value-laden terms; as adults, we think we can size up a person by their accent, the kinds and variety of words they employ, their conjugations, their idiomatic use, their slang, their spelling and so on [5].  In some sense these judgments aren't wrong: our peculiar backgrounds (class, race, region, gender) and predilections are reflected in our language.  On the other hand, prescriptivism implies that there is a moral dimension to language use, and that we should stigmatize variation.  It's hard to see the good in that.

Thanks to Mr. Greene for an all too brief post that prompted this outpouring.  We're looking forward to your book, sir.

Brief Asides

[1]  Education doesn't just do this for language, of course; education socializes children in many of the norms of the broader culture, including values, ethics, social behavior, and so on.

[2]  It is interesting to ask why this kind of variation appears so much stronger in the UK than it is in the United States.  If I could wager a guess: 1) This variation may have been historically entrenched, whereas it has not had the chance to be in the US, which is relatively young.  2)  Certain variations - in accent, say - may more strongly reflect class standing and cultural affiliation in the UK, than they do in the states.  3)  The UK media represent a broader cross-section of this variation in their films and broadcasts, whereas Hollywood does not.

[3]  Counterintuitively, standardized tests like the SAT may actively promote variation, because of the (relatively poor) way they test verbal skills.  To score well on the SAT, it is important to have a fairly broad vocabulary.  However, the verbal exam tests whether you know the 'definition' of a word, not whether you know how to use it.  For students with smaller vocabularies who are hoping to score well, this provides an easy path to top marks: memorization.  Every year in the United States, there are scores of diligent tenth graders out there with nose to the grindstone, haplessly memorizing the definitions to hundreds or even thousands of words via flash cards.  What this means, in practice, is that they are learning the meanings of words divorced from context, arrested from the usual company they keep.  Having taught many such ill-taught teens, I know that this tactic often results in highly idiosyncratic usage patterns - the kind of 'overly flexible' usage we expect from second language learners, not native speakers.

[4]  On this front, I am driven to distraction by the 'unilateral' copy-editing practices adopted by certain magazine editors, in which conventions trump nuance.  For instance, one article I published had all of the contractions stripped out of it.  In that piece, I had adopted an informal and jovial tone, and the contractions were in line with that.  Once the contractions were stripped out, it read almost awkwardly - "What's more" was suddenly the haughty sounding "What is more."

[5]  When I was 17 and a budding prescriptivist, I used to scoff at anyone who dared say "on accident" instead of "by accident," because of what a style book told me.  (Sigh - to be young and an impassioned idiot).  Now it depresses me to think that we judge people by the accident of their language.

[6]  Linguists often talk about change beginning when an 'error' slips past the radar of one speaker, and the speaker reproduces it, as if correct.  Arnold Zwicky, writing on the spread of "getter better," notes:

The crucial fact that allows the error to spread as a new variant is that those who hear (or read) the original slips don't know the status of the expression for those who produced it; for all they know, it's just an idiom that they might not have noticed before.

If speakers have more distinct representations of the same language, as a result of strong bottom-up and weak top-down processes, it may be that errors like this will become more common.

15 responses so far

  • Snarkyxanf says:

    With regards to education, I hope we can get to a point of being normative without being moralistic: I think that all students should reach the point of having access to an "officially correct" mode of language, so that they can read, write, and speak on a civic level. I also think it would be horrible to crush the dialects, jargons, in-jokes, and variations that make up real linguistic culture.

  • Russ says:

    As someone once said, you have to know where the circle is to be productively eccentric. I suspect your use of LOLspeak is knowing, deliberate and ironic, and I would guess that the prescriptivist fear is that teens using text speak will never learn the core grammar they're departing from.

  • Blazered old fool says:

    [Really sorry for this 'something on teh internet is WRONG'-style comment, but I can't help myself]

    "organized soccer, say, is an international sport that is no longer associated with its origins in Britain."

    Not strictly true: the International Football Association Board, the body that determines the Laws of the Game, is made of 8 delegates, half of which are from the four British football associations. This is because they are "recognised for the creation and history of the game".


  • dorid says:

    This has been a sore point with me for years. I was the odd English teacher out when I refused to do grammar drills with my students.

    One thing I do teach, however, is that language is fluid, and changes with culture. Go ahead. TRY to read Chaucer without translation. I can. But your average student can't. The language has changed that much. We no longer pronounce every letter in the word "knight". Is it any surprise that our language continues to simplify?

  • jeremy says:

    Great post. I've been mulling over a language/format post for some time, food for thought here.

  • Hooray for an article that confronts the subtleties of right-and-wrong in the complicated context of the real world. For the millions who must write in English every day for work, it's all pretty confusing. So when writing online courses in grammar and punctuation last year I just highlighted a minority of tricky 'rules' that are still widely accepted regardless of location and industry, and gave some easy ways to avoid the commonest traps. After all, in business writing, the main aim is to be clear. Nice if you can also avoid offending a pedantic customer or colleague.

  • Ariel Ky says:

    When everyone still watched TV for entertainment, there was real concern that young people would have poor reading and writing skills. Now that the Internet has made books and reading material so readily available, that is no longer such a concern. Actually with texting on cell phones being cheaper than talking, more and more young people are writing to each other... to say nothing of email and online chats.

    You could argue that the Internet has been a prime moving force in getting more and more people to communicate through reading and writing. So, you can see evidence of varying levels of ability and skill, as well as greater variation in grammar usage and word choice, especially with nonnative speakers participating in this grand global village made possible by the Internet. (I also wonder at how much the number of people skilled in photography has risen now that it's so cheap and easy to publish photos.)

    I disagree that English is continuing to simplify, although in some respects it's true, but it's also growing far more complex in its variations as the number of speakers of English as a second language increase. We are also starting to see new genres of literature, such as Asian American literature, which despite starting out as primarily as immigrant stories to the U.S. from Asia, has been expanding to include writers from Asia who write in English or are translated into English.

    There's so much to respond to in this article, but what I would like to share most is a stray thought it triggered: Americans would be wise to take advantage of the spread of English throughout the world to aggressively study other languages than to think that we're so important now that so many people are using English. Learning a language is so much easier today with the resources of the Internet and the ability of more people to communicate with each other.

    The geographical isolation of the U.S. does not have to be a barrier to interacting with other people in the world on an equal basis. I realize that this advice goes against the prevailing ethnocentrism rampant in the U.S., but I want to make the point anyways.

    If Americans want to enjoy the prosperity made possible by better communication, we need to overcome old-fashioned attitudes of arrogance and the desire to conquer, dominate and control others to our benefit.

  • dan says:

    This is really interesting, thanks. I agree with many of the points you make above and I think it's particularly true that the growth of certain media forms has encouraged greater variation and diversity. For example, here in the UK you could pretty much watch whatever you want on TV on demand, listen to a niche digital radio station, read whatever news on the web you had pre-filtered as of interest to you and download five albums by your favourite drillcore-emo band (or whatever), and rarely have to engage with mainstream UK culture (whatever that may be or whether that has ever truly existed).

    What worries me a little is that this fragmentation of society into smaller, more specialised, perhaps less integrated groupings means that we're losing a sense of the things that bring us together. While I don't really care much that we can't all stand around chatting about last night's episode of Eastenders like we did back in the blitz (or whenever it was), I do feel that something has been lost or is in the process of being lost.

    With language, the need for a standard is still pretty much essential if people are to succeed in education, employment, social engagement, and as an educator I find myself torn between a love of diversity and a descriptivist's instinct for exploring and embracing language change and variation, and a worry that my students (mostly working class, mostly black) aren't going to be able to compete on a level playing field with the privately educated kids down the road who have been reared on a diet of classic literature, RP, Standard English and a sense of entitlement from the moment they were born to rule.

    We need to have some kind of middle way (sorry, that's horribly Tony Blair) where variation and diversity are studied, explored and valued - be these examples of regional dialect, non-standard forms like in texts and tweets, slang variations, etc - and where the standard is taught too, its importance as a shared language explained, along with the background to why there's a standard and how it came about. I suppose I'm arguing for a kind of language teaching that we don't really have here at the moment, but which many linguists have called for in the past.

    I agree with Russ's point above too, that while you may ironically use the grammar of LOLcats, you know the standard: you've been taught it, you've studied language for years and can code-switch fluently. Others aren't in the same position.

  • E. Manhattan says:

    The whole thrust of a person's language production is outward - most of us are talking and writing to other people, and we use language in ways we think will be understood. Who those people are and how they understand English affects how we produce language for them. Yes, we learn techniques and language forms from media, literature etc - but we also learn a lot from the people we interact with.

    For work, I communicate daily with Indians who are native speakers of different varieties of Indian English. And I communicate with Russians and others who did not grow up speaking English. Over the years I've been friends with or worked with Scots, Englishmen, Welsh, Irish, and Australian English speakers, and with an assortment of other people from Europe and Latin America who used English in specific, culturally dependent ways.

    I'm not particularly unusual in my exposure to English in all it's wild variety, and my own language reflects it - I naturally stick more to American usages, but I also catch myself using "wherein" and "whilst", treating nouns like "management" and "staff" as plural rather than singular, and other non-standard-American usages. It's not affectation, it's communication, since the people I speak with understand different English dialects, and I find myself adjusting to who(m)ever I'm talking to.

    Young Americans find themselves increasingly swimming in this same complex linguistic environment, at much earlier ages than I did. From what I hear in the speech of people in their twenties and thirties, the more connected they become to the world outside of the U.S., the more sophisticated their understanding of English is, and the more diverse their usage is.

    I heard two young mid-western men chatting last week, and one called his friend a "big numtie". I have no idea where they picked up that nice Scots insult, but I suspect it wouldn't have happened fifty years ago. I agree that as a culture, we're becoming much more adept and varied at using our language, not less.

    Yes, I now live in a world wherein I have often enjoyed chook for tea since fifteen years, previous to which it was chicken for supper. This has been explained in speaking with Ozzies. And there are many other Americans experiencing likewise.

    • skatr says:

      "And there are many other Americans experiencing likewise."

      And from what language is that "sentence"? Surely not English!

      • Avery Andrews says:

        I think it's exactly the sort of thing that somebody might say (although, if I wrote it and noticed it, I would change it).

  • Florian Blaschke says:

    Very insightful piece and comments, thanks.

    I'm much more sympathetic to prescriptivism (and even purism) than the majority of linguists seem to be; I don't think uncritically championing "anything goes" and ridiculising prescriptivist attitudes is a helpful attitude. There are very important reasons for prescriptivism (and even purism), and it is dishonest to ignore those. But of course, I'm all for linguistic variety as well. What we need is rational, linguistically informed prescriptivism for the right reasons. (It is, of course, necessary to understand, for example, that "it is me" is simply not the same and does not mean the same as "it's me".) One of the most important, if not the most important reason, to my mind, is the attempt to stabilise the language as well as possible, not least for the benefit of future generations. (My favourite example is Medieval Latin - despite all regional variety and change in detail, being a second spoken language for some people at least, it remained "downwards compatible" so that classical literature always remained accessible to someone who mastered Latin, and Latin remained an incredibly useful, politically relatively neutral lingua franca throughout Europe.) However, this concerns only one register: Formal, written standard language, just like here. There's the rub. Prescriptivism and tolerance need not conflict. That's a concept many people seem unable to grasp - even linguists.

    People need to realise that the written standard is just one variety (or actually, several closely similar varities) among a vast number of varieties, most of which are only occasionally written (though attempts to commit them to written form become far more frequent thanks to Internet-based communication). But one that is simply particularly important and useful. Prescriptivism shouldn't dictate people how to talk - casually, in daily life - or even write privately, but for serious use in public people should know how to express themselves. Mistakes happen, of course; both those who spot them and those who make them and may be pointed them out need to chill: no disasters happen (usually) because of minor mistakes - fortunately, language is quite redundant - and pointing a mistake out doesn't make you a "grammar nazi" (if you aren't being a dick about it). Even if it's a systematic error (or deviation). What's really important that people realise the value of carefully edited texts, and why it does matter. Proofreading is work - but if your audience is large, your text is read many more times than it is written, and careful writing (and of course, thinking) improves the chance that your contribution will be considered seriously.

    When it comes to our written language, as well as anything else in our culture, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Let's show them some respect!

    It's a very good point, too, of course, that you need to know the rules - well - in order to break them.

    That said, I think LOLcats are hilarious and I often use LOLspeak and other idiosyncrasies and in-jokes among my friends and buddies. That's perfectly natural for me. I just try not to let that seep outside of that domain. As I'm writing this comment, I feel like playing Captain Obvious all the time, because, what exactly is so difficult to understand about the fact that different forms, registers and varieties of language are appropriate for different contexts and purposes? It should be common sense. And paradoxically, as people become more familiar with and more tolerant towards variety, they may understand the need for consistency and norms, too. Try any collaborative work without standards - it just doesn't work. It's not morally wrong to use non-standard grammar, it can simply be counterproductive depending on context.

    My point is that people just need to be become more multilingual - or multidialectal; competent in many varieties and registers, and able to recognise the value inherent in each of them.

  • Kate says:

    Hoards of Americans! XD

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