How much can you say in 140 characters? Not much, you might think, but this small chunk of language is increasingly rife in the digital age.
That opening paragraph, in case you were wondering, was 140 characters exactly. But for those wanting to squeeze more into ever shrinking units of communication, the easiest way is to use abbreviations or, as the Oxford English Dictionary has dubbed them, initialisms. This is part of a move to include common textspeak abbreviations such as OMG, LOL and FYI into their updated online edition, as well as adding a whole raft of slang terms from Wag to muffin top.
We may all be familiar with these initialisms and a host of others, but it would probably surprise most of us to learn that in fact the first use of OMG was in a personal letter dating from 1917, while FYI originates from the language of memoranda in 1941. The desire to fit more into less is nothing new, it would appear. When it comes to the English language, is less really more?
England manager Fabio Capello certainly thinks so; he commented to reporters that he needs a vocabulary of a mere 100 words in order to talk tactics with his players. While he probably did not mean this figure to be taken literally, it is worth asking just how many words we use on a daily basis and if the demands of our increasingly digital and fast-paced lives make much of our language’s rich vocabulary defunct.
No such worries dogged the writers of the past, with literary figures such as Chaucer and Shakespeare even throwing words of their own creation into the mix. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Bard introduced over 1,500 words to the English language, while Chaucer clocked up a whopping 2,027. Charles Dickens, meanwhile, can boast more than 200 words to his name and the Daily Telegraph has made 250 additions, including the first use of the now infamous alcopop back in 1997.
The decision to add initialisms to the Oxford English Dictionary may be controversial and will prompt the harbingers of doom to bemoan the deterioration of the English language, but perhaps we should be celebrating the continued growth of our vocabulary. While the pervasion of textspeak into more of our language might not be the most encouraging development, the continual expansion of the English language is a vital sign of life; our vocabulary has not been denigrated to Capello’s 100 word range just yet.
As for the growing fashion to shrink language into easily digestible chunks, this can be seen as a new challenge to the flexibility and inventiveness of our vocabulary. While many tweets are filled with barely comprehensible abbreviations, some have embraced the possibilities of Twitter to play with language in fresh, exciting ways. One such experimentation with words is the growth of Twitter fiction, with users attempting to write stories in no more than 140 characters.
Some fear that textspeak will begin to take over written language, while in his recent book The Language Wars, Henry Hitchings speculated that the apostrophe is on the way out, but the plain fact is that there is no way of knowing what is next for the English language. What is clear, however, is that it will not be going down without a fight.