April 14, 2006

AOL-speak is destroying language’s beauty


After seeing this, my first thought was, “What the hell am I looking at?” Since then I have been puzzled over my irate, troubled gut response to this note, an excerpt from an e-mail a friend sent me. I have concluded that my irritation stems not from the fact that I’m barely capable of decoding what my buddy was trying to say so much as my frustration at the manner of its delivery. The style of this e-mail exemplifies a relatively new and increasingly incomprehensible language that, unfortunately, is known to every student as instant messenger or AOL-speak.

I have become convinced that these abhorrent abbreviations are nothing less than an insidious linguistic plague slowly but surely wreaking havoc on competent communication everywhere. Cute and cuddly abbreviations such as “LOL” and “BFF” may save time and allow for faster, more efficient correspondence, but that is precisely the problem. The efficiency of AOL-speak not only erodes relationships by dumbing down how people talk to one another but it also degrades the English language itself.

For thousands of years, language has been growing and evolving. Instant messenger abbreviations represent an abrupt reversal of this trend; they are an evolutionary regression. Any biology student will be able to tell you that the more diverse a given species’ genetic makeup, the higher its fitness level and probability of survival. The same rules apply to language, and alas! Current trends indicate that English is indeed a frail creature on the verge of extinction. AOL-speak removes diversity and character from language, stripping words and thoughts down to their bare-bones skeletal structure. If one thinks of letters or syllables as genes, and complete ideas, images, and sentences as whole organisms, then instant messenger abbreviations represent a truly catastrophic corruption of language, a dilution that reduces the phonetic gene pool to a weak and watery soup. AOL-speak is the unfit offspring of inbred and watered-down language in which means of expression become diluted beyond recognition. Everyone talks about cataclysmic species extinction, yet here we are confronted with linguistic extinction as a natural habitat—the human mind—becomes increasingly polluted.

Language is precious, and being able to express oneself through writing, even in something as apparently trivial as an e-mail, is vital. AOL-speak strips all the beauty and nuance out of written language, converting it to a means rather than its own end, shifting the emphasis from quality of self-expression and communication to sheer speed, efficiency, and volume of dispatches. Personal communication used to mean something; people took time in the composition of correspondence and invested something of themselves in it. Now, however, cookie-cutter abbreviations have overrun the realm of language, leaving it a bleak, monosyllabic wasteland.

Not everything one writes should aim to be high Shakespearean art. Yet writing should provide a source of pride. Anything a person writes, even if it is a quick e-mail, expresses something about him or her and comments on who he or she is. Language is not merely a means but an end in itself, a fundamental method of self-expression. It is something to be reveled in, played with, and enjoyed as our greatest, most enduring cultural inheritance, not cheapened, commodified, and distilled to its barest essence. Efficiency of communication is not all that really matters.

Unfortunately, English is not the only linguistic tradition under siege by this infatuation with efficiency. Just think of poor old French! Consider how wildly inefficient the written French language is, where about 50 useless vowels get strung together to produce a word that, when spoken, sounds like little more than a brief and charmingly inflected sigh. By the logic behind AOL-speak, French ought to be banished from the tongues of humankind altogether.

Upon further reflection, a deeper explanation emerges for this fascination with linguistic efficiency. Instant-messenger abbreviations arise as a symptom of the great religion of our time: the universal societal belief in the absolute value of economic efficiency. Efficiency is our society’s sacred creed, so it’s hardly surprising that it ought to pervade our means of self-expression as well. Yet, when one reflects on it, obsession with efficiency stems from a deeply rooted fear. The ultimate purpose of streamlining and efficiency is to save time and reduce “wasted” moments, and people want to save time because it represents a scarce and finite resource that we all run out of eventually. People fear running out of time-—a euphemistic way of saying they fear the imminence of death—and, out of that fear, are drawn to the ideological siren song of living the most efficient life they can. And one way to do that, of course, is to write in as stripped down a manner as possible. Yes, dear readers: the tragic truth is that the current vogue of AOL-speak is explained by fear of death.

Perhaps a little inefficiency may not be all that bad. Indeed, living inefficiently is a tremendously courageous act because it flies in the face of fear. E-mailers everywhere, rise up! I challenge you to live without fear! Have the courage to live inefficiently through your writing, and, please, before it’s too late, before English joins French in getting wiped off the face of the linguistic map, start using real words and whole sentences again.