Upgrade your English: Internet, Teens and Texting
A few years ago in UK, there was a huge outcry in the media about a Scottish student who, when asked to write about her summer holidays, wrote the whole thing in text-speak (or should I say txtspk?). The redtop press (tabloid newspapers, such as The Sun) particularly had a field day, pulling out the usual rent-a-quotes (people who are regularly asked for comment by the media), who screamed about the fall in educational standards and the ‘death of literacy’. Personally, I found it amusing that the people who were calling others ‘illiterate’ were the ones who couldn’t read the essay.
Having worked with international teenagers in recent years, one thing I have found is that their English is often way ahead of mine in various fields. Being a bit of a computer-luddite, I am less familiar with IT terminology than many of my teen-students. I tell people I don’t know what an MP4 is… In fact, I don’t know what an MP3 is, but saying MP4 makes me sound a bit more modern. Likewise, I really don’t know the difference between an iPhone, a tablet, or all the other weird and wonderful techno-tools currently on the market. However, whether I am computer literate or not, I should, really, be making the effort to learn as it is something I may one day need to teach to another student or, a frightening thought, these words and phrases might one day become part of the language and included in the dictionaries.
Think I’m joking? Consider the firm Google. The firm recently celebrated its 11th birthday but is already a major part of our culture. How often do you hear someone say, “Google it!” as an answer to a question? It is already such a part of everyday life, I wonder how long it will be before it becomes an established verb (perhaps, “to search for the answer to a question”). Other firms have already done so, such as the vacuum cleaner producer Hoover (in UK, “to hoover” is to vacuum, regardless of the brand of the machine). Even within the firm, there are coinages which might, arguably, spill into common usage one day. The name of the company is based on the word “googol”, a number consisting of 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The number multiplied by itself is a googolplex. The firm has used this as the basis of a word play. Googleplex is the name of one of the firm’s campuses (Google-complex). Similar things might be seen with Facebook. The term “to unfriend” is becoming more common, even adorning a Hello Kitty! T-shirt as part of a slogan, “Don’t make me unfriend you!” I wonder how long before this becomes an established verb as an alternative to “break-up” (if it hasn’t already).
Computer terminology has already wormed its way into other areas, often using old words and almost replacing their primary meaning. If you say “icon” to most teens these days, they don’t tend to think of a religious picture, rather a sign on a computer screen. Likewise, what we used to call a “remake” or a “relaunch” of a film series is now referred to as a “reboot”, from the computer term.
Texting (or SMSing) is something which has already become a verb. In the old days, we used to “send a text”; now, we “text someone”, or “SMS someone”. Funnily enough, in UK, the term SMS was scarcely used. I am curious whether the influx of young Polish people to UK has changed that. Most teens seem to have a knowledge of text-speak, even if they don’t have a great knowledge of English. It can be fun to try out this in class.
The above mentioned text-essay began like this: “My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kds FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.” Translation: “My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it’s a great place.” I have occasionally brought this into class and asked my teens (and adults) to try and translate it. They have to use their skill of deduction. Harder texts are available on the Internet.
TV, Films, Music and Changing Language
A recent piece of research revealed that the Glasgow accent and dialect, one of the strongest and notorious in Britain, is changing because many people are watching Eastenders, an English soap opera based in East London (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-24021961). The influence of TV, films and music is very important in spreading words and phrases across countries and the world. A few years ago, the UK had a lot of Australian soaps, many of which were popular amongst teenagers (the most famous was/is Neighbours, which starred a young actress called Kylie Minogue and an actor called Jason Donovan). At some point, linguists began to notice that young people were starting to use Australian words like “arvo” (afternoon) and “barby” (barbecue). Some of these are still widely used in UK, particularly since many Australians came to UK to work and study. It will be interesting to see if the influx of Poles to UK has any effect on L1 English speakers, especially as Polish is now the second largest language in England.
Popular TV programmes like Friends have also introduced styles of non-standard syntax and grammar, which have also influenced everyday speech in UK and US (and, presumably, L2 speakers)… And, teachers do so not approve! Likewise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is credited with introducing something called “Buffy-speak”. This variety involves inventive constructions using a variety of non-conventional adjective and noun structures, often when the speaker is unable to use the correct word for something. One example might be using nouns as adjectives to describe something, e.g. ‘gun’ = ‘shooty bullet thing’, ‘annoying-no homeworky person’ = several of my teenage students. Buffy-speak (or Whedonspeak, after Joss Whedon, the show’s creator) has been around long before Buffy staked her claim (did you see what I did there?), but the show brought it to worldwide attention and made it popular amongst adults and kids alike. While unconventional, it is certainly useful… How many times has a student become stuck for a word and you’ve asked him/her to try and explain it in a different way? While it might not be advisable for IELTS, it can be useful for real life (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/ pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak).
Music has always been instrumental in spreading new words and phrases. Names of styles are pretty universal. While instruments may have different names in different languages, I haven’t yet encountered a non-English term for ‘Rock’, ‘Jazz’ or ‘Metal’. But, music has also introduced other words into languages, either through lyrics or through the jargon of devotees of the style. For instance, the word ‘cool’ became very popular through Jazz. It basically means something which is relaxed or very trendy and demonstrates a certain amount of class. It later became the catchphrase of a 1970’s TV character called The Fonz, in an American programme called Happy Days (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXHMb8aNMjw). The Fonz was a ‘cool’ cat: he had the smartest moves, the best put-downs and the prettiest chicks to hang around with. Teachers and parents in UK were in despair trying to stop kids chanting out Fonzie’s catch phrases: “Hey!”, “Coooool”, “Sit on it!” (basically, “Shut up” or “Get Lost”… A more recent equivalent would be Bart Simpson’s “Eat My Shorts!”). “Cool” is still used a lot (especially by those of us too old to know the modern equivalent: “bad”, “wicked”, “sick”), but where does it come from? Well, allegedly, during the early Jazz period, the best clubs got really crowded. As this was in the days before air conditioning, the venues often had to leave doors and windows open to let in fresh air, hence being ‘cool’ venues. To be “hip” (fashionable or knowledgeable) is also a Jazz term. Even today, some people refer to dancing as “having a bop”, but I wonder how many of them know “The Bop” was a popular dance of 1950’s America. A more recent word which seems destined for posterity is “Twerk”. Seriously, I had never heard the word until a few weeks ago, when I saw a picture of young Miss Cyrus at the MTV awards show. At first, I thought it had something to do with her tongue sticking out… until I worked out it had more to do with lower parts of the body (shaking the hips and squatting, apparently!). All of a sudden (to me, anyway), the Internet seemed alive with twerking. It also came to light that the word was at least 20 years old and had been popularized by a New Orleans DJ; however, it was Miley who finally allowed the word to wiggle into the online OED (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twerk”).
As most styles of music have their roots in particular social or ethnic groups, the slang, dialect or jargon of these groups can often appear in the lyrics, later being adopted by those listeners who are not originally from that group. Modern examples are easily found in Hip Hop and Rap. This summer, a Turkish boy told me he spent a lot of time at home, “Hangin’ wid ma dawwwgs!” (“Hanging with my dogs”). At first, I thought he meant he had some canine pets. After hearing the theme tune to one of the recent The Fast and the Furious films (I’ve never seen one!), I surmised he meant “Hanging around with my friends”.
The press media and popular magazines can also be useful places to keep an eye on, as words may suddenly become widely used and popular through their coinage or adoption by the press. One example is “metrosexual”, meaning a man (usually a city dweller) who is very meticulously groomed and takes a lot of care about his appearance (David Beckham being a prime example). The word is a combination of heterosexual and metropolitan. The word was coined in 1994 by a journalist and has since gone global (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Metrosexual). However, not all ‘new’ words are new. In the last 15 years, the word “chav” has become almost universal in the UK, being used to describe a stereotypical lower class, uneducated (usually unemployed) youth subculture. The word itself seems to be only 15 years old but is thought to be derived from the Romani word chavi (a child). Interestingly enough, an older word for an uneducated, antisocial young man was yob, itself a “backspelling” of “boy”. While the word “chav” has gained popularity, it is not necessarily as new as it seems. In some northern dialects of England, such as the Newcastle “Geordie” dialect, the word “charva” has long been used to describe troublesome yobs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chav). Obviously, the adoption of new words and language amongst L1 speakers is then mirrored by L2 via contact with the media and contact with other speakers across the Internet, as well as face to face. Some of these terms will undoubtedly die out, or be seen as archaic jargon of the old generations; however, others may well secure themselves a place in the dictionaries in years to come.
So, how does this affect the teacher? As a Native Speaker, I find this a challenge. Living in Poland for over 10 years has broken a lot of my own contact with linguistic developments at home. Sometimes, I meet my teenage nephew and nieces and I haven’t a clue what they are saying (although their parents say the same, and they live with them constantly). My lack of contact with UK TV means I often have little idea of some of the ‘in’ phrases as I have no point of reference. More often, I learn about these things from my Polish students! It is also a great excuse to give my wife as to why I am often browsing books and films primarily meant for teenagers.
With this in mind, it is important for teachers to devote some attention to teen interests, such as music and TV. Phrases may become trendy very quickly (and die as quickly), and teachers may feel themselves losing control of their knowledge of contemporary English when their teens start spouting it, or they meet L1 speakers from abroad. It is also important to be able to advise students which words might be considered as standard and which should be used under caution. Once you gain experience of these new forms (if you haven’t already), they can be used in class. Inventing text-speak might be useful for considering phonetics and pronunciation. Buffyspeak can be used for stimulating the descriptive imagination and helping students think about how to describe objects or people when they lack the correct word.
A great source for new slang, phrases, etc. is The Urban Dictionary: http://www.urbandictionary.com/