Twinguistics: How Twitter is Forming the Future of Language

As Twitter continues to rise in popularity it may change the language we use in subtle ways. Although there are many pundits (particularly Boomers, born 1943-1960) who have said that email and texting are bastardizing our language, my take is slightly different. Twitter is famous for one thing in particular: the 140 character limitation on messages. This limitation supposedly results in people carefully crafting their updates to make them brief and useful. To quote Blaise Pascal:

“I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.”

Being concise is a requirement of Twitter, and sometimes this results in very insightful updates. I believe that if Millennials were dominant on Twitter (it seems to be a Gen X thing) we might see more of the texting style abbreviations. I sometimes use the “shorten this update” feature in TweetDeck, but mainly for retweets. For the most part the Tweets are written in complete sentences that are comprehensible regardless of your generation.

But there is another effect I have noticed and that is word choice. When you only have 140 characters to use you are often tempted to use shorter words to express yourself. On the face of it there is nothing wrong with this since shorter words can often increase comprehension. But over time this may change the nature of our language in subtle ways.

The example of this phenomenon that inspired this post is the naming of the generation that comes after Generation X (born 1961-1981). According to generational researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe, the next generation is born from 1982-2003 (or so). Strauss and Howe named this generation the “Millennial” generation to reflect the fact that the first of them graduated high school in the year 2000. There are many other names popular in other circles, such as Generation Y, Generation Me, Generation NeXt, Generation Txt and The Baby Boomlet. Strauss and Howe chose “Millennials” based on the result of a poll given to members of the generation. They argue that Gen Y implies that they are somehow similar to Gen X (which is not the case) and that Gen Me also does not reflect the character of this generation (they are more outward focused than many give them credit for). Naming of a generation is a contentious thing (they originally called Gen X “The 13th Generation”, a name that, thankfully did not stick) that is eventually decided by popular opinion.

So what does this have to do with Twitter? As I have many conversations about generations on Twitter, I notice that I am tending to use GenY (4 characters) rather than Millennials (11 characters) to describe this generation. It may seem a minor thing, but as new terms appear in our language brevity may be valued above accuracy. Is this a trend we will see in other areas of the language: preferring shorter words as new terms are developed? I am sure similar arguments have been made about all forms of media (television dumbing down language being a good example).

In the words of Marshall McLuhan:

“The medium is the message”

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