Warning: big words ahead

How Slang Is Slowly Dumbing Our Message Down

James Twinn, Staff Writer

English is an ever-evolving language. People complain that we are constantly adding new words and phrases to our language. Yet, a language that can keep up with the times is a lasting one. Clearly, some languages couldn’t cut it, which is why only a handful of people can decipher ancient Sumerian these days. On the other hand, I’ve recently noticed that staying apprised of every new word or colloquialism has become rather strenuous. Almost everyone, fluent speakers included, is struggling to learn and understand the barrage of new terms and phrases that are being incorporated into our language on a daily basis. An increase in internet sharing and social media has kicked up the speed of language evolution to a blistering pace. This creates a variety of problems that must be addressed, but the argument that our language is steadily degrading is not a new one. Older generations have been claiming “Young folk do not know how to speak properly anymore” for decades. That line of reasoning isn’t entirely valid and a little slang here and there is not only okay but far better than demonstrating total ignorance while new words are embraced, by Webster’s Dictionary no less. However, I believe it’s imperative to acknowledge how our use of language affects our identity, appearance, and ability to communicate with others when evaluating whether changes in language are positive or not. How we speak can enhance or disable how we well we are able to express ourselves and function in the world. If our use of language inhibits this, something is going wrong. If it helps us, what’s the problem?

Through our gross use of the internet, especially posting, texting, and messaging, we have undeniably changed the English language as a whole. You can see this in the skyrocketing of the use of numbers instead of letters, and the overabundance abbreviations that have left English absolutely riddled with easy yet insipid acronyms. Examples include: lol, omg, brb, smh, yolo and the list goes on. Considering the convenience of these shortened responses, the conclusion that these acronyms degrade language seem overblown. Text-speak serves a purpose as it is more functional and convenient to type less especially when certain websites limit the number of characters ( I’m looking at you Twitter), and I am certainly guilty of using 4 instead of for from time to time. Yet, current language trends don’t stop at typed abbreviations; many words have also been shortened and distorted over the years. Look at what’s happened to the word brother. First it was bro and then brah, bruv, bra, bruh, and now some people just say “B.” We are also beginning to speak the way we write. We may be relegated to grunting utterances at some point if we aren’t careful. As we become increasingly accustomed to this limitation, we fail to accumulate the vast bank of descriptive words used to communicate any concept more sophisticated than leaving our computer to grab a snack with a brb.

Consider how an extensive vocabulary can assist us with crossing social and economic boundaries. It’s especially important to have something more than mono-syllabic responses at your disposal when dealing with a formal setting such as college essay exam or a professional job interview. In those situations, the use of popular lingo is ill-received and you must have a more eloquent set of words to rely upon. Unfortunately, many of us have become remiss in this capacity and are devoid of an extensive cache of expressions which leads to an impression that we are witless or shallow no matter how perspicacious we may be. Using nuanced, resplendent, manifold word choice in these contexts is always advantageous, but beware of the over-zealous brandying of words such as “frivolity” or you may be deemed pretentious. See what I did there? 

So is language actually degrading? In terms of common usage, the answer has to be yes. The primary factor contributing to actual language deterioration is the accelerated speed at which it is altered. Have you ever heard a cool new word that seemed to pop up overnight, only to become obsolete a week later? It’s a constant that words eventually die off and fade away in the English language. As much as I would love it, we no longer say thy, hither or hath like ye old knights of Camelot (though methinks that would be awesome). However, in the past, major changes in language took place over a span of decades, not weeks as it does today. This leads to a widening gap of understanding between those who surf the web often and those who don’t. Parents find their children speaking in tongues they can’t comprehend because they aren’t perpetually online. Even teens that momentarily lapse in their devout Twitter following can miss a trendsetting post leaving them with an embarrassing disconnectivity with their peers. Now, if you want to understand common English, you better add all the famous rappers on Snapchat or you’ll find that your trendy talk from yesterday just became prehistoric a minute ago. Most of us spend more time trying to keep up with the word of the day than adding timeless terms to our vocabulary that will benefit us past next weekend.

Ultimately the most problematic aspect of these rapid-fire languages alteration is our loss of individuality. If you go out to a schoolyard and listen carefully, you will hear the students using the same words of the week, with the same inflections, cadence and vocal pitch. It’s like the same song endlessly played on different instruments. It’s a mind-boggling phenomenon that I personally find repugnant. In a culture where we claim to revere uniqueness and individuality, why do people seem to fall in line at the sound of a tweet notification? I get fitting in, we all want connection and inclusion, but cramming every personality into the same box does no one any good. It is frightening when you consider the amount of redundancy we presently face with no signs of relief. Most people assimilate subconsciously in terms of language and ideas but when we do notice the stark sameness in our speaking patterns it’s time to make a conscious effort to set ourselves apart from the crowd. When my 17 year old classmate sounds eerily the same as my 9 year old cousin, that’s a nightmare I refuse to accept. You should become more sophisticated with age and experience, but this obsession with being trendy makes it nearly impossible for us to differentiate ourselves. How can you have your own voice when you just rehashed it?  If our words are all about fitting in, we constrain the way we think and express ourselves. When we do yearn to share an idea that’s original or specific to our individual experience, we will inevitably become frustrated with fast-food phrasing. That can lead to censoring any unique thought altogether because we simply lack the words to express it.

The power of our words is becoming the most overlooked tool we have of presenting ourselves to the world. Why not choose to make ourselves heard with just a variety of compelling diction that authentically states our cause and experiences instead of mimicking someone else’s? In a country such as ours, where freedom of expression is something we cherish above all else, I’m mystified by the linguistic conformity that has engulfed us. The words you use are just as important that what you mean to say. You can be delivering the most profound, moving idea but if it is littered with words such as “literally” and “irregardless”, its meaning may be lost. It’s not as daunting as you may think to elevate yourself beyond the average idiot’s linguistic stupor. The endeavor to ensure more effectual oration only requires a modicum of commitment. You simply need to expose yourself to new words daily and make it your mission to use them. Sure, that’s work, but it’s better than sounding, not for a lack of a better word, dumb.