“Literally, Mom, the skirt you’re wearing is totally cheugy,” my passive-aggressive sixteen-year-old cousin remarked at our Thanksgiving dinner this past year. The clatter of wine glasses silenced and bites of pumpkin pie halted as everyone over twenty at the table sharply turned to her in utter confusion.
“For crying out loud!” my traditional grandfather exclaimed, slamming his napkin on the table.
“What the hell is ‘cheugy’?” my aunt questioned, smoothing her skirt, glaring at my giggling cousin.
At our dinner table, my family often has miscommunications because of the slang that members of different generations use. Words like “cheugy” are normal to my Gen Z cousins, but to my Silent Generation grandparents, they create a muggy cloud of confusion. While we are all speaking English, sometimes it feels like we are communicating in completely different languages. And in many ways we are. The truth is that language is changing rapidly, and much of this evolution happens because of the Internet.
My grandfather and many linguists believe that Gen Z and Millennials are hurting the English language. Because of the Internet, new words are spawned each day and are seeping into dictionaries and standard English. Lynne Agress, writer and professor at Johns Hopkins, debates this view in her 2016 Baltimore Sun article, “The Dumbing Down of a Generation.” Agress believes that social media and smartphones are hurting younger generations more than helping them by simplifying vocabulary and “dumbing down” Gen Z. For example, the College Board has started “eliminating vocabulary” and “students stopped routinely studying Latin” (Agress). She claims that new generations earn lower test scores and have a limited education in history, literature, and politics (Agress). With the increased interest in smartphones and the decreased interest in literature, Agress thinks that upcoming graduates will not “be able to contribute to society, to the increasingly complex world in which we live” (Agress).
However, many linguists disagree. The concept of language shifting is not new. In Latin and Old English, grammar and vocabulary constantly flowed and fluctuated, even without the introduction of the Internet. New words routinely appear and wash away while others are constant and enduring. The adaptation of English has been occurring since 450 AD and will continue to occur as new generations arise (Essberger). With the introduction of the Internet, these fluctuations have been happening faster with a widespread effect, causing greater confusion and shock to older generations. The introduction of new slang and modified grammar rules may appear to be incorrect or simply “bad English,” but they are allowing English to be more useful. By examining language development of the past, we can clearly see that Millenials’ and Gen Z’s innovative changes of English through technology is a positive and normal thing, aiding in modern communication and maintaining the usefulness of English.
Historically, shifts in language have many causes. While the Internet has sped up these shifts, nothing about it is new. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, states in his Introduction to Linguistics class that languages change because of contact, social differentiation, and new generations. First, he asserts that contact between languages through migration, conquest, or trade causes words and sounds to be borrowed or copied. For example, Old English transformed into Middle English because of the Norman invasion causing a French influence (Liberman). See the chart below about differences of words in Middle English and Modern English (fig. 1). Liberman continues to say that changes within a language can be regional or due to social class: “Linguistic distinctiveness can be achieved through vocabulary (slang or jargon) and pronunciation (usually via exaggeration of some variants already available in the environment).” These effects can be isolated or continue to expand till words such as “cool” or “y’all” are part of our everyday speech (Liberman). Finally, Liberman claims that language changes can simply be a result of old generations teaching new generations how to talk, as “random differences may spread and become fixed” (Liberman). These three elements are the reasons that Old English developed into Modern English, but only some of the reasons Modern English is rapidly changing. Now, instead of these changes happening by horse and buggy, they occur in a millisecond with a simple Google search.
Throughout history, the responses to language shifts have not always been positive. Many of the complaints my grandfather is making about English today were also made about Latin. Angela Della Volpe, a Cal State Fullerton linguistics professor, states in a recent article for the Daily Titan that “there are always people who complain. Roman writers complained that Latin was not being spoken as it was supposed to be spoken because people were butchering the language” (Pierrot). Della Volpe continues to say, “Latin, didn’t just disappear. It just changed so much that it became unrecognizable” (Pierrot). Today, funny enough, people still despise change. English is shifting, so people are complaining.
The historical progression of English and Latin shows how unsurprising it is that English is still fluctuating. Now, however, language isn’t changing because of invasions or trade, but because of the torpedo of smartphones and the Internet. After our Thanksgiving dinner, I discussed the miscommunications at our table with my uncle, English and Linguistics Professor at Slippery Rock University, Derrick Pitard. He explained that speech changes happen at different times at different speeds: “The greater the speed of language change, the greater the probability of trauma.” For example, the Norman invasion was a very sudden trauma. The invasion of the Internet is a different kind of rapid trauma, but it still, understandably, causes distress (Pitard).
Still, many worry that the Internet has an unnatural effect on English. They think the untraditional words and writing styles that are being created will ooze into and corrupt traditional English. But new words and slang are not shocking but expected. Charles Exon, a British classicist and linguist, discusses in his 1914 book Hermathena that in theory “a language is supposed to have an excellence and perfection bearing no relation to the needs and purposes and to the general fortunes of the men and women who speak it” (20). Exon continues to say that this is unrealistic (20). He believes that language is not something that is simply written, but instead based on the behavior of people and constantly changing (20). In order for English to remain useful and help communication, it needs to adapt to its current speakers’ habits.
A recent habitual change is texting. Everyone is texting, not just teenagers, as it is the main form of everyday communication. Pitard states that “the question is about corruption and whether people are using what’s happening in texting in standard or spoken English.” Many fear that texting is not just shortening traditional English, but that it is actually forming something new (Pitard). Because of the small keyboard on phones and the required shortness of texts, abbreviations like “lol” and “omg” have become popular (Pitard). See the chart below for more examples of popular abbreviations. Pitard argues that texting is not influencing standard English, but instead creating its own separate, mini English language.
The language of texting is a necessary adaptation as it aids efficient communication. John McWhorter, a famous American linguist, explains the difference between writing, talking, and texting in his 2009 Ted Talk, “Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!” He states that writing “is a conscious process,” while “speech is much less reflective” (McWhorter). On the other hand, McWhorter thinks that “texting, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of what we call writing, is fingered speech” (McWhorter). As McWhorter explains, texting itself is not corrupting the English written language, but it is creating something altogether different.
Still, many teachers fear that texting language will appear in traditional English writing. Michaela Cullington, a speech and language pathologist, states that many teachers are finding abbreviations like “‘2’ for ‘to’” or “‘wut’ for ‘what,’” in student writing. But Cullington does not believe that this is an accurate representation of students (93). After interviewing teachers and students and examining writing samples, she concludes, “I can confidently state that texting is not interfering with students’ use of standard written English and has no effect on their writing abilities in general” (95). The purpose of the texting language is for specific, casual Internet conversation, but is not meant to replace formal forms of English. In my interview with Pitard, I asked him if he has ever found “fingered speech” in his own students’ writing, to which he replied, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘lol’ in a paper. Kids have a pretty good sense of how to filter out those kinds of things” (Pitard). Both Cullington and Pitard see the separation between standard English and the language of texting.
While many think that the introduction of new technology and the Internet is changing words themselves, many argue that it is instead changing grammar and punctuation. This shift is especially visible on social media. Rachel Thompson, a senior writer for Babble, claims in her recent article, “Millennials Destroyed the Rules for Written English – and Created Something Better,” that language shifts are making written English more conversational and helping to facilitate easier communication (Thompson). When texting or on social media, it is easy to misinterpret tone, humor, and inflection that can be more easily understood in person. Most of us have probably gotten into an unnecessary argument with a friend because we couldn’t understand their sarcasm in a text.
Millennials and Gen Z have found a way around this problem. According to Thompson, “Millennials have created a new rulebook … which states that deliberately misspelled words and misused grammar can convey tone, nuance, humor, and even annoyance” (Thompson). For example, if you’re angry, you can capitalize whole words to indicate you are YELLING. Or, you can specifically capitalize certain letters to add eMPHasis. Or, highlighted in the tweet below (fig. 3), you can leave out commas to show excitement and energy (Peters).
Thompson consults Dr. Lauren Fonteyn, English Linguistics Lecturer at the University of Manchester, who believes that Millennials are “‘breaking the constraints’ of written English to ‘be as expressive as you can be in spoken language,’” and convey “what body language, and tone and volume of voice can achieve” (Thompson). While onlookers may think that random capitalization or extra punctuation is lazy, it can be highly purposeful and aid in the common miscommunications of writing. Instead of condemning these vocabulary and grammar changes, Cullington praises them. She quotes David Warlick, a teacher and author about technology in the classroom, who thinks “students should be given credit for ‘inventing a new language ideal for communicating in a high tech world’” (Cullington 92). Could this new language be showing the innovation of the younger generations?
It is true that language and technology are changing, but that does not necessarily mean it is inherently negative. While the shifts in Old English and Latin prove the regularity of language change, the changes happening to Modern English are because of something brand new: the Internet. The vastness of the Internet is frightening and unpredictable. Still, it is truly helping more than harming. The introduction of the “fingered speech,” the mini-language of texting, and grammar changes seen on social media are aiding in everyday communication without harming the intellectual developments of young people.
So, is Gen Z 2 dumb 2 contribute 2 society, as Agress believes? I would suggest that smartphones and the Internet are not to blame. Instead of hurting Gen Z, they are helping them better communicate and allowing English to continue to thrive. While future changes of English might continue to create confusion at my Thanksgiving table, the solution instead of disappointment might be just signing my grandfather up for TikTok.
Chloe Pitard is a rising sophomore at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. She is from Maryland and loves spending time in New York. Although she is not an English major yet, she loved exploring the background of the English language in this essay.