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Written Spoken Language

By Gil Cohen

The title sounds quite oxymoronic (or maybe just moronic), doesn’t it? But it does make sense, once you think about it. On the one hand, we speak our language every day, hence the spoken part. On the other hand, we sometimes write our language, in more formal situations, like mail (or emails these days), hence the written part. Nevertheless, there is another variety, which is the written spoken language, when we write on informal platforms, such as Facebook and WhatsApp (or any other messaging app you may be using). I briefly discussed this topic on my last piece, from issue #30, titled “Seeing and Unseeing”.

This written spoken variety is a rather new phenomenon, that emerged a few decades ago, after the internet has become widespread and we began communicating with each other on digital platforms. This is the origin of the term “Digital Discourse”. Until then, we either spoke to one another, telegraphed one another, wrote letters to each other, or read (and wrote) books and newspapers. Books and newspapers (and magazines, too) have editors who get a say about the published content, be it vocabulary or grammar. Would editors “allow” the writer to end a sentence with a dangling preposition, for instance? I’m sure there were (and probably still are) prescriptivist editors who wouldn’t allow for this kind of “mistake”.

Mail is a different kind of writing platform, which is (usually) used for communication between individuals, person to person, instead of books and newspapers, which are person to (potentially many) people. As such, letters are not censored or edited by external sources besides the writer. They still, however, follow a specific pattern, which we have (probably) all learned in our English lessons: You start with “Dear X”, followed by several neatly-structured paragraphs and end with some sort of greeting, signing your name at the end. If you forgot something, or wish to add something that isn’t related to the subject of you letter, you add a postscript. This pattern is so widespread and rigid, that it lives on in emails: you still address the recipient, greet them at the beginning and the end, and sign your name even – though your name usually appears in your email address!

Well, the internet has really changed it all. Nowadays, most of our written communication is done via texting or posts on various social media platforms. Platforms such as internet forums and early messaging programs, like AIM, ICQ and MSN Messenger, were either informal or much more immediate (even if not completely immediate, like spoken conversations), or informal and immediate. Therefore, it enabled this hybrid of the spoken and written varieties to emerge.

Another extremely important factor in the creation of this written spoken language is the fact that up until not so long ago, sending texts was not a cheap thing to do. Therefore, you had to think very hard about how you could squeeze as many words as possible in the most concise way, while still making sense and writing what you wanted. Obviously, our ingenious minds did not shy away, and we invented fabulous new ways to shorten words, like “gr8” instead of “great” and “thnx” instead of “thanks”. I’m sure this phenomenon existed (and probably still persists) in other languages. This greatly informalized the already informal digital texting platform.

Nowadays, texts are either free, really cheap or if sent via the internet, don’t have a price per text, and yet, such shortened forms are still commonly used, because why not? These platforms are as informal as one can find, since they’re usually used by friends and family to communicate. As such, they enable us to use our spoken language, which is mostly used in informal situations, in writing. That’s where slang, different constructions and spelling that reflects the actual pronunciation of words, come in.

As we all know, orthography is very conservative, and spelling isn’t updated very often, even though the pronunciation of words might be very different than the way they are spelled. Grammar and vocabulary, and spelling, too, are rather stagnant in written discourse, even though they do eventually change. For example, Shakespeare used words that at the time were considered slang but are now used in the most formal situations, such as “break the ice”.

So now we are free to do, or actually write, whatever we want and however we want when we text and post on social media. When we speak, we don’t usually construct the whole sentence in our head before we utter it, but rave have a general idea of what we want to say. Therefore, we sometimes utter words and then correct ourselves because we misspoke or we forgot to say a word, adding it in at a point in which it isn’t totally grammatical. Nevertheless, our prosody (the way we speak, not what we say) is enough to make sure the other side of the conversation understands us.

I usually find myself writing in a manner very similar to the way I speak, and when I suddenly think of something I “should’ve” written earlier, most of the time I don’t edit the whole message and rewrite it “correctly”; I simply carry on writing and send it the way it is. The same goes for spelling: sometimes, I “misspell” words on purpose, because that’s how I would’ve pronounced them out loud. For example, the Hebrew way to say “I think so” is nir’e li and it’s comprised of two words: nir’e, which means “it seems” (in this regard), and li, which means “to me”. Nevertheless, when I use it in a text message, I simply write nireli, as one word (in the Hebrew orthography, the change would be more visible), but I would never use this form in an email or in any other formal platform.

The world of Digital Discourse is an extremely fascinating field of research in linguistics, and this has been just a taste of it. Stay tuned for more pieces on the subject in the future!

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