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When We 'Talk' Via Text, What Language Are We Speaking?

23/02/2016 10:14 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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When I heard a 10-year-old girl on the street ask "Can you take a selfie of me?" I was a little taken aback, and not just because I expect all people younger than me to have selfie sticks. Language is changing. We live in a world where kids ask their dads to "swipe to the next page" of their storybook and "go and play" might mean go and watch a video on an iPad.

So should we play the dowager and be outraged at this degradation of language? Or is this just the natural development of how we speak?

The reality is we're all guilty of using inaccurate language every day.

We still "hang up" our mobile phones, even though it's a finger swipe or button press and not the satisfying clang of a receiver to its cradle. It's still called a "flat screen" TV, though the last time I was in Harvey Norman I didn't see the shelves sagging with those rear-heavy ones.

We still call it an "SMS" (Short Message Service), even though it could be 140 words instead of characters now. We wouldn't arch an eyebrow if someone wanted to watch a "film".

The dictionary doesn't give us any answers on how we're meant to speak. Oxford Dictionaries' 2015 words of the year included some nascent terms like 'sharing economy' and 'Dark Web'. But they also made more pop-centric additions like 'on fleek', 'lumbersexual' and an emoji.

The people don't fully agree with their choices, with the top comment asking: "Does this mark the final nail in the coffin of Oxford Dictionaries? Attention seeking silliness, or do they really mean it?"

My mental source of truth is my English teacher from year five. I remember being taught at school that 'individuals' is not a word (it can never be plural) and that 'impacted' is also incorrect (it's not a verb -- you're meant to say "x has an impact on y").

But these cases are so commonplace today that I can't imagine correcting someone -- and there's no reason to because I understand what they want to say.

If language is just about communication, then I think most people understand what the 10-year-old girl was asking with "Can you take a selfie of me?", especially since she was holding out a phone while standing in front of a colourful statue.

But she had interchanged the word 'photo' with the word 'selfie'... so what will happen if we don't correct her? Will schools be organising annual "class selfies"? When someone goes to prison, will there be a "mug selfie"? Will business moguls tell amphitheatres full of ambitious career seekers to "Take a professional profile selfie", to which they'll nod solemnly and jot it down? Will 'selfietography' be a serious interest on Tinder profiles?

Or will we just get (more) tired of the word and until it dies a natural death?

No matter the future of 'selfie', the prevalence of digital things in our daily lives has caused many language changes. People say they "spoke" to someone, even if it's over text, email or instant messenger. "Watching TV" might involve looking at a TV, but there could be a Netflix movie on, or a series of YouTube videos. And there's no guarantee that "hanging out with friends" means that everyone is in the same physical space.

So if the rise of digital is changing how we speak, with the kids picking it up fluently, then are we at risk of becoming out of touch? Or is it the children who are wrong?

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