One of my professors in graduate school, Bob Morris, spent time studying contemporary Peruvian novelists and playwrights while living in the country during the ’60s. Fascinated by the different linguistic intersections in the country, Bob made it his habit to create lexicons of slang and colloquial expressions in the back of the works that interested him.
Little did he know that those lexicons, originally created to satisfy his own curiosity, would become useful to others decades in the future. Indeed, while Bob was a tenured professor who wrote on Latin American theater, he was also well known in certain academic circles as having a set of lexicons that captured the contextual significance of Peruvian slang and colloquialisms as they were used in literature int he 60’s. I know this because, In the early 80’s, when I studied with him, it was a common occurrence for Bob to receive correspondence from different scholars (from Latin America and the U.S.) asking about the contextual meaning of specific phrases or slang used in a novel or play. The requests were generally prefaced with an explanation like, “I think I know what this phrase/slang term means but it’s no longer in circulation and I’m not sure exactly how it was used in the ’60s.“
I was reminded of Bob and his slang lexicons yesterday while I was jogging and listening to a summary of Gretchen McColloch’s pop-linguistics book Because Internet. In her book, McColloch explores the different ways the Internet has shaped and continues to shape language. One of her foundational premises is that the Internet has championed the informal, unedited use of language. New technologies placed an emphasis on informal writing forms — email, chat conversations, text messages, and blogs — that removed the scrutiny of formal filters that had long-governed formal writing, such as editors and strict grammar and style rules. This massive “loosening of restrictions,” she notes has led to significant upheavals in our daily use of language.
What I wonder is whether the effects of the Internet on language will ultimately be like the slang that Bob chronicled in Peru during his time there or more akin to the evolution we see in some creole languages.
Creole languages are complete languages that develop form the mix of two or more languages at a point in time. An example would be the creole languages that developed in colonial European plantation settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of contact between groups that spoke mutually unintelligible languages. Creole languages are simpler and often less formal than the parent languages that formed them but are still complex enough that they have a consistent system of grammar, possess a large semi-stable vocabulary, and are acquired by children as their native language.
Creole languages are also necessarily informal and somewhat fluid by nature. The parent languages that form a creole language have more complex structures than their offspring and tend to be supported and reinforced by formal writing systems. A creole language, in contrast, lacks both the linguistic complexity of its parents, as well as the structural reinforcement provided by a formal writing system.
The result is that creole languages are free/able to evolve more rapidly than the traditional languages that form them. There is less holding them in place. As a result, creole languages can undergo significant evolution, even within a single generation.
Which brings me back to the Internet and the impact the Internet has had and will continue to have on our use of language. Will the lack of formal constraints and the intersection of disparate languages (new terms and structures) produce an entirely new creole language? If so, what are the possible impacts on education? What is the possible impact on formal and academic writing? How will we adjust our approach to teaching writing and communication?