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  • John Stokes 12:13 pm on March 12, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammaticality judgments, , literature, media, newspapers, , text speak, , txt   

    Those narrow-minded, prescriptivist . . . texters? 

    Texting encourages us to be creative and unconstrained with our language, right? Traditional print media, fettered as they are by the bounds of Standard English, promote more rigid acceptability and grammaticality judgments, don’t they? Aren’t those prescriptivist editors and stodgy old style columnists just concerned with dictating how we speak and write?

    Not so says some new research from University of Calgary linguist Joan Lee.

    Lee’s Master’s thesis tested students with varying levels of exposure to text/instant messaging versus traditional media (newspapers, magazines, literature, nonfiction). She hypothesized that those with comparatively more exposure to the free-form nature of ‘text speak’ would be comparatively more lenient in their acceptance of novel and deviate forms of words, both morphological and orthographic. What she found was the opposite.  Students who had spent more time reading books and newspapers were more likely to judge novel words or deviate forms of words as acceptable. Those who had more exposure to text speak tended to be considerably more rigid and constrained in their acceptability judgments.

    This result is moderately mind-boggling. Think of all you know about texting and compare that to your expectations of the effects of traditional media on language use. From texters, we see such classics as ‘wot r u doin 2day‘ and ‘ur stoopid dood‘ and ‘kewl‘ and, perhaps best of all, kthxbai‘. There’s a bunch of research discussing why texters say and spell things like this. In the preview of her thesis linked above, Lee cites one such study that says people are trying to be playful, spontaneous, socially interactive, and even creative. Compare this to what you read in the New York Times, where there’s actually someone who writes articles nitpicking the grammar of other traditional-print-media articles, including sometimes the NYTimes itself!

    I haven’t read the whole 150-page thesis yet, but it seems there are several plausible explanations for what’s going on. One idea is that for a novel form to be acceptable to texters, it must be a novel form commonly seen in text speak. So while there may not be the same types of grammatical constraints, there are conventions that are respected nonetheless. Or perhaps text speak is still free-form and not subject to constraints in the ways that traditional media might be, but free-formedness doesn’t actually equate with creativity. So while you’re tossing standardized grammar out the window, you’re not necessarily looking for the most precise, novel, creative word to express a given idea. You may be using words with odd morphology and spelling, but you’re probably not reaching deep into the dictionary to find those words. This means that readers of text speak don’t often see words they’re unfamiliar with and thus don’t often have to figure what those unfamiliar words might mean.

    If, on the other hand, you’re a big-time reader of traditional print media, you probably encounter unusual words all the time. To figure out what they mean, you either infer their meaning from context or use your knowledge of productive morphology like -ity or -ness. This could explain why texters are ok with ur and kthxbai and wot, but not some of the novel forms that Lee proposed in her study, like canality and groundness. If you read and don’t text, the textisms may be ridiculous to you, but you might be able to come up with a meaning for canality and groundness that makes sense, and thus conclude they’re acceptable words.

    I’m sure much more will be said on this front in the near future. For now, I think it’s enough to note this interesting bit of research and sign off — TTYL, folks.

     
    • Chad Nilep 7:39 pm on March 13, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I haven’t read the thesis at all, but but it seems there are several plausible arguments that this phenomenon is not going on. According to Lee’s abstract, she administered a questionnaire to 33 university students. Small sample size, homogeneity of the subject pool, or confounded variables might cause such research to turn up artefacts that don’t hold in the larger population, texters and newspaper-readers generally, that they are extrapolated to.

      It sounds like an interesting study, and I’ll add it to my queue of things to read in my spare time. But I’m not confident that Lee’s findings would necessary hold up in a larger study. I’m more confident, however, that if much more will be said on this front in the near future some newspapers will report the results as though they were proven to be true among a much broader general public.

    • Josh 11:33 pm on April 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I can’t see past page 17 of the article, but the abstract says the sample size is 33, which seems awfully low. I’d also be curious if she controlled for gender/income/some proxy for intelligence since it’s easy to imagine some variable like this being highly correlated with text/instant message frequency. But I imagine these issues were probably addressed in pages 18-150!

      • Josh 11:34 pm on April 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Note: I didn’t see Chad’s comment when I first posted.

  • The Diacritics 4:10 pm on September 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: attention span, discourse, economics, government, media, message, , public discourse,   

    “The language of economics and individualism” 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    The New York Times ran a piece by Yale professors Theodore R. Marmor (public policy emeritus) and Jerry L. Mashaw (law) discussing how public discourse has shifted from “the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history” in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s to ” individual choice, agency and preferences” today.

    “[T]here is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.

    “This is more than a superficial difference in rhetoric. It threatens to deprive us of the intellectual resources needed to address today’s problems.”

    I wonder how much of this change is a consequence of the 24-hour media cycle, the vast amounts of information on the Internet, and the ability of pretty much anyone with a keyboard, microphone, or video camera to get his views heard. It’s much harder to shape public discourse when everyone else is trying to do so in different ways. The Internet, especially, levels the playing field: even a president can’t make his voice heard much louder if the background din is too strong.

    “In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions.”

    Marmor and Mashaw lay the blame too squarely on the government and don’t indict the media enough. In considering the state of today’s public discourse, it’s important to remember that there’s no more “gentleman’s agreement” between politicians and news outlets anymore. Can anyone imagine today’s photojournalists mercifully agreeing to photograph a polio-ridden FDR only from the waist up? Yesterday’s polite standards are long gone; today’s media is “hard-hitting,” if not always on the mark.

    It’s pretty incredible how pithy headlines — especially in this era of low attention spans (particularly in my generation) — can send a politician’s or government’s message tumbling out of control. It’s the difference between a front page headline of “Obama unveils ambitious $3-trillion jobs plan” and “Economists doubtful that Obama’s ‘job-killing’ plan will work.” For the short-of-attention, one headline conveys a significantly different message than the other. Why bother even reading the analysis if we seem to get the point from the headline?

    Despite politicians’ intents and careful calculus, their message has to pass through an unforgiving (and often biased) filter before it reaches their constituents. Politicians no longer have sole control over their voice. (Did they ever? Or were media outlets just more cooperative back then?) My generation — including me, I admit! — ingests its news and analysis through tweets and Facebook shares rather than deep analysis. Many older people, too. I don’t wake up to a Times on my family’s front porch anymore; I wake up to a Facebook feed.

    Perhaps our discourse is out of control. We have a lot of things to blame for that, not least ourselves. The Internet has taught my generation, for better or worse, that the ability to get our voice heard means that our voice is worth hearing. So we all shout. As we come of age, I can’t imagine things reverting much.

    Marmor and Mashaw write:

    “Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

    “Can we talk about this? Maybe not.”

     
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