Teens reach linguistic peak in online chat

May 14, 2008

LOL, OMG and TTYL: parents and teachers worry that teenagers' use of these and other forms of online shorthand is harming their language skills. Perhaps they will take comfort from a study suggesting that instant messaging (IM) actually represents "an expansive new linguistic renaissance".

Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis at the University of Toronto, Canada, say teenagers risk the disapproval of their elders if they use slang, and the scorn of their friends if they sound too buttoned-up. But instant messaging allows them to deploy a "robust mix" of colloquial and formal language. In a paper to be published in the spring 2008 issue of American Speech, the researchers argue that far from ruining teenagers' ability to communicate, IM lets teenagers show off what they can do with language.

"IM is interactive discourse among friends that is conducive to informal language," says Denis, "but at the same time, it is a written interface which tends to be more formal than speech."

He and Tagliamonte analysed more than a million words of IM communications and a quarter of a million spoken words produced by 72 people aged between 15 and 20. They found that although IM shared some of the patterns used in speech, its vocabulary and grammar tended to be relatively conservative. For example, teenagers are more likely to use the phrase "He was like, 'What's up?'" than "He said, 'What's up?'" when speaking - but the opposite is true when they are instant-messaging. This supports the idea that IM represents a hybrid form of communication.

Nor do teens use abbreviations as much as the stereotype suggests: LOL (laugh out loud), OMG (oh my god), and TTYL (talk to you later) made up just 2.4 per cent of the vocabulary of IM conversations - an "infinitesimally small" proportion, say the researchers. And rumours of the demise of you would appear to have been greatly exaggerated: it was preferred to u a whopping 9 times out of 10. Tagliamonte and Denis suggest that the use of such short forms is confined mostly to the youngest users of IM.
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