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Writing Orally?- The Changing codes of language

If texts were human beings, they would be the kind that back slap everyone around them ceaselessly. There is a level of exclamatory enthusiasm that one displays while communicating digitally that has no parallel in the real world. The overuse of the exclamation mark is rampant- and we don’t stop at one; we often need as many as three to make our point. It is no longer enough to say thank you, one must at the very least, say thank you! Or if one really means it, thank you!!!

The exclamation mark is the added dash of enthusiasm that helps our words leap off the page. Language embraces tone as cymbals crash in the background. We read not squiggly symbols which is what written language really is but hear the resounding voices of real-life people emphasise what they have to say. Our love for superlatives and the frequency with which we use text messages today has ensured that this is an overused device. It allows us to substitute lengthy and often tedious protocols of social grace with a single character. We compress enthusiasm, packing it into this symbol; the only problem being the tendency to overuse it. Linguist Gretchen McCullough argues that the exclamation mark is increasingly being used to communicate sincerity rather than intensity. As the use of superlatives abounds (wow, awesome, amazing), the exclamation mark becomes a way of communicating ‘I am not just saying it, I really mean it.’

It makes us aware of the symbolic richness that is delivered by the system of grammar that we use. Embedded in these tiny symbols lie a wealth of meaning, which becomes more apparent at a time of transition, like today. As the gap between text, image and speech narrows, our inventory of linguistic devices needs to be expanded and enriched. Interestingly, there is already provision in our existing linguistic resources to capture nuances of speech in text.

A bracket, for instance, allows for the digressive nature of speech our ability to ramble on and diving into the bylanes of a thought while speaking. It divides our communication into two levels- the surface sentence and the sotto voce digression that we amble through. It imparts to print a facility available otherwise available only to oral culture. It is akin to our lowering our voice fractionally in order to add flavor, texture and a little spice to our principal point. It is an aside, a conspiratorial whisper, an interesting sidelight, or just the product of a rambling mind aware of its own drift.

Then there are italics. What a glorious way to underline (yes, there’s that too) emphasis. It imparts a finicky specificity to what is being said, as if the sentence is pausing to enunciate an important constituent clearly so that its full import is understood. The oral weight of an important thought is reproduced, somewhat ironically by the visual device of a thinner font that is slanted rightwards. Using bold text serves the same purpose, if less elegantly so. It is not clear why this should be deemed so, unless it is because it is a little vulgar in displaying its impatience.  The underline too signifies significance but it is a conceptual device that belongs to the world of writing and not that of speech.

A really interesting device that is used is the set of symbols deployed to convey the fact someone is swearing. It is the visual equivalent of the bleeping sound. The @#$%&! sign (called a grawlix) manages to convey inarticulate frustration and annoyance without having any content that is meaningful. It does so by capturing the essence of swearing- the words used are by themselves not important and certainly cannot be read literally. They are used to shock, to cross a line that is otherwise taboo, in an attempt to convey one’s emotions. The %##%@ sign does the same. Interestingly, there is no standard notation for this- any combination of symbols suffices to convey the intent.

To add to the resources we already have, is the new world of emojis. With emojis we are introducing to written text a layer of emotion that it otherwise wholly lacked. Communication becomes more direct, with the emotional intent of the message being graphically reinforced. The reaction meme is another new largely visual way that is increasingly used as a way to respond to what is being said. Here, images from popular culture or animated clips are harnessed to express a wide variety of emotions- admiration, ridicule or disgust being prominent ones.

A lot of linguistic devices are part of what theorists like Walter Ong call ‘secondary literacy’, the phenomenon when written language begins to take on hues of the spoken word. Otherwise, there is a formality to the written text; we certainly don’t write what we speak- whether it is an article, an exam paper, an academic text, official letter or even a post card in the earlier days. Written languages brought along with it its own implicit rules; the language system we use in both oral and written communication might be the same but the way in which we deployed both was distinctly different.

What has changed is that we communicate using text as if it were speech. Unlike an earlier time, today text messaging occurs very often in real time. We message someone who instantly messages back- the idea of written two-way dialogue which was otherwise only possible when we spoke to someone is now an everyday occurrence. Our language needs to correspondingly adapt to this new situation, resulting in the written word carrying what Ong calls the ‘temporal immediacy of oral exchange.’ 

Language is an alive adaptive instrument that embraces new modes and finds ways to fulfill its essential task. Those who view at a pure bounded space that needs to be protected, miss its vitality and inventiveness. The sheer vibrance of linguistic innovation that we are seeing today merits an exclamation mark. For once!