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Can U Keep Up W/the Changing Tech Vocabulary?

* It's not just jargon. The electronic age is altering human communication.

November 09, 2000|MARY McNAMARA |

It was an office romance that led, as so many do, to a domestic situation. Now the relationship between Americans and their computers is more than a decade old. And the day-to-day intimacy between human and machine has produced a whole new way of speaking.

Unthinkingly, we use terms that many have forgotten were once technical. We don't converse, we interface. We don't feel an emotion, we process it. We don't juggle errands, we multitask. Instead of remembering, we download. Instead of criticizing, we flame. A mouse is no longer a small, twitchy animal, an icon not only a cultural symbol.

And these are the old, boring terms. The list of technospeak is ever-changing and Homeric. A whole subgenre of dictionaries, including the inevitable one "For Dummies" has emerged in the last few years.

But the effect the electronic revolution has had on human communication goes further than the jargon that accompanies almost any new technology. That's because the computer, unlike, say, the assembly line or the automobile, is about communication, about different methods of communication. And the hours that many of us spend e-mailing colleagues or lolling about in chat rooms is affecting more than our vocabulary--it's changing the way we talk, write and perhaps even think.

"You always find people picking up terms from new industries," says Deborah Tannen, author of "The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words" (Ballantine, 1999). "Like 'I'm not going to go there.' I wouldn't be surprised if that came from the Internet, the 'go to' idea. And e-mail is the ultimate expression of our tendency toward casual speech."

Casual speech, she says, is what leads us to jettison traditional conversational formalities, causing some to even dispense with the personal pronoun. Hence those voicemails that go something like this: "Hi, this is Bob. Wanted to check in. Just briefly. Wondering how that Andrews account was coming along."

Casual speech also paved the way for the modern e-mail in which the "To:" and "Re:" slots have replaced the standard letter form, including title and salutation. Accepted closings have long since shifted from "Sincerely Yours" or "Very Truly Yours" to "Best," "Cheers" or simply "Thanks." On e-mails, where the sender is identified at the top of the screen, they are often left off entirely.

But the biggest change Tannen says she sees is the one created by the physical and emotional distance of electronic communication.

"Anonymity, or at least lack of physical proximity, allows you to say things you might not otherwise," she says, adding that e-mail also lends itself to misunderstanding more than a phone conversation, or even a voicemail message, might. "Any time you're dealing with a one-way communication, you can't control how it's being interpreted. There is no tone of voice, no context."

That fear of being misunderstood has led to a legion of acronyms, some of which existed before (BFD, FUBAR), others new to the medium: LOL (laughing out loud), EOL (end of lecture), IMHO (in my humble opinion). Even more popular are the emoticons (a word itself that did not previously exist)--the inevitable smiley or frowny face inserted in a message to soften a stinging retort or to turn an insult into a good-natured jibe.

Reliance on an electronic wink or kiss or sniffle not only allows writers to express sentiments they might not reveal in person or over the phone but also to use imprecise language. As one father of two put it, you can't exactly stick a smiley face into a college application essay, or, for that matter, a thank you letter.

"Everybody knows about the little smiley face," says Pamela Munro, a linguistics professor at UCLA. "To me, the biggest change has been the frequency and length of communications, but that is more of a behavioral thing. Although [e-mail] has made people seemingly incapable of using capital letters. And it hasn't improved spelling."

Enuf. Shuld. Mebbe. Cuz. Ur. Til. These are just a few of the intentional e-mail misspellings; the unintentional mistakes, some the product of speedy typing, some of ignorance, have some concerned that the language itself is suffering.

Marie Agel, a French instructor at Moorpark College, says the changes the Internet has wreaked upon the English language are very clear when she compares the skills of her young-adult daughter and son.

"They are three years and nine months apart," Agel says. "My daughter went to the library to research her papers; my son, who is just 20 now, goes online. Her spelling and grammar are so much better than his. Children don't have to learn how to spell; they just have the computer do it."

Agel, who recently remarked to a class that working on a computer was ruining her handwriting, believes e-mail has a language all its own.

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