January 23, 2005

English in deep trouble?

A user signing as phaln on Slashdot today remarks, apropos of a comment exchange about using the entire web as a corpus (the way we often do here at Language Log Plaza), which led to some comments on the sort of random slangy stuff on the web that might make that a bad idea for grammarians seeking information about English:

It came to me that the English language was in deep trouble when people started saying "rotfl" and "lol" in person.

Now, the user is being humorous, of course. But it is remarkable how often people say this sort of thing. It reaches newspaper columns and magazines as well as everyday conversations about language ("Oh, you're a linguist? What do you think about the way Internet slang is changing the language?"). I've heard a half-hour radio discussion about it on the BBC World Service (in the middle of the night; it was a real yawn, a perfect fix for my insomnia). It seems likely that at least some people really do think English might be altered radically by the intrusion of email abbreviations for phrases like "[I'm] rolling on the floor laughing" or "[I'm] laughing out loud" into regular spoken English.

Don't worry. Nothing radical or even slightly significant will happen. Suppose, say, "rotfl" (pronounced "rotfull") became quite common in speech (which seems unlikely, since if your interlocutor falls down and rolls on the floor laughing it generally needs no comment; but maybe as a metaphor, or on the phone). What would have changed? One interjection (a word grammatically like "ouch") added. Total effect on language: utterly trivial. Not even noise level. Interjections are so unimportant to the fabric of the language that they are almost completely ignored in grammars. There's almost nothing to say. They have no syntactic properties at all — you pop one in when the spirit moves you. And their basic meaning is simply expressive of a transitory mental state ("Ouch!" means something like "That hurt!"). Don't worry about English. It will do fine. Not even floods of email-originated phrases entering the lexicon would change it in any significant way. If phaln were to suggest such a thing seriously I would be LOL.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 23, 2005 02:30 PM