When Twitter Words are Spoken Words

Laptop

Photo (c) Matthew Bowden

Since the dawn of the written word, great minds have noted the separation between spoken and written language. Yet with social media, we have perhaps bridged this gap. The conventions of texting, chatting, and emailing dictate a conversational tone, an off-the-cuff quality that imbues the conversation with personality. Naturally, then, one might wonder if online communication habits are influencing our spoken language.

For example, I’ve noticed a recent trend toward using the term ‘OMG‘ in face-to-face conversation. For those you haven’t been around teenagers for the past five years, ‘OMG’ is a simple acronym for ‘Oh my God‘ that has become a popular staple of electronic communication. For a while, I only heard ‘OMG’ used semi-facetiously, but now I’m not so sure.

In fact, we may underestimate the degree to which online lingo has infiltrated American spoken language. Amanda Pawelski, an English as a Second Language specialist, conducted an empirical study of how such language has changed our vocabulary. That paper, Using Internet Slang in Spoken Conversation: LOL!, is not the most academically rigorous (it amounts to a written survey whereby participants indicated which internet words they use in spoken conversation). But her results hint at some interesting trends in terms of how people use such words in everyday conversation.

For one thing, women seem to show more variety when it comes to spoken internet lingo than men. Both genders use terms like ‘bff‘ (‘Best Friends Forever’), the aforementioned ‘omg‘ (‘Oh my God’) and ‘lol‘ (‘Laughing out loud’), but women do so in greater numbers. Meanwhile, a small fraction of women use ‘wtf‘ (‘What the f***?’), ‘brb‘ (‘Be right back’) and ‘ttyl‘ (‘talk to you later’), where men reportedly never use these. Is this evidence of a gender gap opening in information-era dialects? Hardly, but it’s intriguing to wonder.

I remain a tad skeptical about the degree to which online writing will impact spoken language. Most of what we’re talking about here is slang, and slang rarely stands the test of time. More startling would be if online grammar begins to influence its spoken counterpart.  But thus far it’s hard to identify what ‘online grammar’ even is, much less how it might be sneaking into oral discourse.

Only time will tell.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to When Twitter Words are Spoken Words

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    I’ve only ever heard bff as a spoken thing. I’ve never hear any of the others, even OMG. People just say Oh my God, not oh em gee.

  2. Liz says:

    Is ‘bff‘ really internet slang? I’m quite sure that the others are, but I’ve never thought of it as internet slang. Not all acronyms are, as I’m sure you know.

  3. dan says:

    “OMG” was certainly alive and well in spoken language in East London last week! I’ve yet to hear its South London/BBE equivalent “OMD” or “OMDZ” (Oh My Days) in spoken discourse, but it’s surely a matter of time.

    • trawicks says:

      @Charles,

      I don’t hear many of these either, to be honest. OMG and WTF I’ve heard in a joking manner, but ‘ttyl’ and ‘rofl’ are a different story!

      @Liz,

      ‘Bff’ is probably questionable as being ‘internet lingo.’ It does seem that the term gained prominence with the rise of internet communication, but I’m unaware of the origin.

      @dan,

      “Oh My Days” is interesting: is that a traditional expression, or is it new?

      • dan says:

        I always thought it was quite a quaint, old-fashioned expression (and maybe it is) but I first heard it being used by my (mostly black and south London) A level students about 10 years ago. They’d probably been using it for much longer but that was my first encounter with it.

        I suspected, but never proved, that it had something to do with a euphemistic way of saying “Oh My God” so as to avoid blasphemy, but it just seemed incongruous to hear such a mild term among so many other more lively slang terms.

        Other personal favourites from Black British slang moving into text abbreviations (and potentially back into spoken form) have been KMT (Kissing My Teeth), KMBCT (Kissing My Bloodclart Teeth) and KMMFT (Kissing My Mother-lovin’ Teeth).

        I’ve only ever heard the first one spoken aloud and probably ironically, but I’m now teaching in Essex so removed from the cutting edge of urban slang, sadly.

  4. dan says:

    These two links pick up the same topic and suggest the use of some of these is more entrenched and widespread than might have been thought. Whether it’s down to Twitter, teh interwebz etc. is open to debate!

    http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41481667/ns/today-today_tech/t/omg-when-did-we-start-talking-txt-msgs/#.TsTdvnKQ6TY

    http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2011/02/ily-wtf.html

  5. cclinton says:

    I find “lol” an especially interesting case, because one can see it has a lot of phonetic variety. While one could pronounce each letter /el oʊ el/, what happens more commonly (from what I’ve observed from me, my friends, and my peers who use it) is that it is pronounced with a single syllable. This syllable can take on a huge variety of pronunciations, and there even seems to be rules as to which pronunciations can be used.
    */lɑlz/- Sort of a “strong form.” It derives from the rule that maps written CoC onto the “Lot” vowel. It also has a final /-z/ from an over application of the -s morpheme (which can bee seen a lot for emphasis). It can be written as “lawlz” (for around here cot=caught) or has an alternate pronunciation as “lulz” (/lʌlz/ or really more like /ɫ:z/). It is used as a descriptor mostly, as in “That’s lawlz/lulz”, but it’s not really an adjective, for *Lawlz (noun) is ungrammatical. It is also a noun as in “I did it for the lawlz”, which is clearly where /-z/ in the descriptive form comes from. It can be used as a response to something funny, but in spoken speech this form would be used for something especially funny, and would be drawn out (/lɑ:::lz/).
    */lɑl~lʌl~ɫ:/- The “weak” form. Used almost solely as a response to something funny, though with less intesity then the strong form (equivilent to a solitary chuckle). Can be repeated for emphasis, as /lʌlʌ(lʌ…)lʌl/, but still weaker then “lawlz” and is more often seen in writing. This form seems to always be written as “lol” and the repeated form as “lolo(lo…)lol.” Pronunciation with /lʌl~ɫ:/ probably derived from taking original vowel quality of the “o” in L-O-L ( the “goat” vowel), but here the “goat” vowel is systematically reduced to /ʌ/ before /l/ and is even often deleted, leaving behind just a lengthened syllabic /ɫ:/.

  6. Aaron Bauman says:

    I have heard many many “webspeak” abbreviations in spoken language. Often these seem to be used self-consciously or ironically — at least that’s usually how I use a saying like “oh em gee” in spoken word. My 16-year old sister uses “eye dee kay” (idk: i don’t know) to the dismay of her parents.

    That said, I can see them slipping into casual, non-ironic use. Come to think of it, I frequently use “double-you tee eff” or “what the eff” without irony.

    • trawicks says:

      Ironic expressions have a way of becoming unironic expressions. My wife and I began jokingly referring to pizza as ‘pizzies’ (the language of couples is baffling). At some point, of course, we started using the word without irony: “Do you wanna stay in and order pizzies tonight?”

      • Leigh says:

        There’s a lot of fodder in the couple-speak conversation. It might be quite a challenge to trace the origins of these ridiculous phrases. Also embarrassing, ex: In our house we say “peebs” for peanut butter.

        • trawicks says:

          Oh yeah, couples pretty much have their own strange dialect. Around my household, one can hear such oddities as “don’t get your wig in a tizzy” and the insertion of ‘-s’ where it is inappropriate (e.g. ‘Man, it’s rainins outside’). Hmm, methinks this warrants a post …

  7. m.m. says:

    Yeah, I don’t think BFF belongs in the same category as WTF or TTYL.

    I’ve spoken BRB as both the initials ‘bee are bee’ and [bɝb], along with LOL as “elle oh elle” but mostly [lɔl]. ROFL and STFU were always [‘ɹɒ.fəl] and [stə.’fu] though.
    A friend of mine, years ago when texting was finally something everyone did, would semi-ironically say OMG as [‘oʊm.gə].
    I can’t imagine WTF or TTYL being spoken non-ironically though.

    As for the online grammar, lets say lolcat grammar, I have heard it spoken, but never sincerely.

  8. AL says:

    I think of many of these terms as “young people” speak, and I use many of them in my speech, e.g. “Fail,” “for the win,” “I can has X?”, “You can has it,” “lawl,” “Oh noes!” It’s usually done facetiously.

    I usually, however, will not spell out the acronyms in speech.

    There is a pop band called LMFAO, and its name is spelled out when spoken: “ell em eff eh oh.”

    I could be wrong, but I think “bff” predates the days of ubiquitous internet. I seem to recall it being written in high school yearbooks. Granted, the internet was beginning to grow when I was in high school (1996 – 2000) but it wasn’t quite as widespread as today.