“Heyyyyyy”: Elongated Vowels and the Alleged Degradation of Language

The way we speak fascinates me, but the way we write is something I’m not sure I’ll ever be done explicitly exploring. It all boils down to forms of communication: in what ways do we convey meaning when we are limited by the internal voices of others? When I write, particularly if we’ve never spoken, you sort of have to assume a great deal about what I’m saying: am I terse, or relaxed? Perhaps I simply want you to get the facts straight, or maybe you should really read into that last thing I just said, alright?

Each time I come across an article decrying the difficulties of written communication, I find myself mentally scoffing. While I admit that text-based conversations or opinions are often more difficult to interpret, I have a sneaking suspicion that if we work harder at it, we’ll be capable of spreading our thoughts more or less as intended, with a degree of accuracy akin to the spoken word.

Even so, text communication is tricky. On the one hand, you’ve got the temptation to slip into some rather strange informal speaking tendencies–duplicating letters, as in the article linked above, or ignoring grammar, as in much of ‘meme speak’–all in the name of sending a simple message. On the other hand–and this is where I tend to lean–you have the temptation to formalize your writing, always attempting to communicate as if you were writing a paper. There’s some leeway there, of course, since the subject matter I deal with in day-to-day IM, e-mail, and texting doesn’t necessitate the sort of high level philosophy that my graduate work does. But the temptation is there, partially because the broader scope of philosophical language allows me to communicate ideas with greater clarity.

I don’t want to overstate that, though. There’s something to be said for the ‘strange informal speaking tendencies.’ For starters, a lot of those tendencies are widely shared; the reason we use that sort of language is because it is understood by others. Further, sometimes our written language simply attempts to reflect its spoken counterpart: sometimes people really do use elongated vowels and say “heyyyyyy,” and our spoken language is often far more informal than the papers you wrote in college (I hope so, anyway, for the sake of your grades, or in my case my friends).

Finally, there’s something to be said about writing in different tones. It’s good that I can write academically when I sit down to hash out some philosophy problem. That may not help me when I’m e-mailing a friend from high school, though, nor will it help if I’m IMing my younger brother. The problem isn’t necessarily with understanding–my brother is a smart guy, though I’m not sure about some of my high school friends–but rather lies with intention: my goal is to talk about what is going on in someone’s life (either his or mine), not debate the existence of minds, or some other such esoteric issue. I should practice both, and perhaps practice other sorts of writing (informal yet professional, professional and formal but not academic, etc.), because I am likely to encounter all of these in my day-to-day life, to some degree or another.

Some suggest that “almost all of our digital communications are total thought garbage, so we get away with the least amount of verbal effort we can.” That makes me sad, though if it is true I suspect it is likely just as true for any of our communications (how much time do we spend gossiping, or talking about other trivial matters?). I suspect we can use our written words to impact the world as much as or more than our spoken words, though it would certainly take a bit of effort.

After all, it was by words that God spoke the universe into existence. The Word became flesh, and we now experience the Word through the recorded words of Scripture. Our responsibility is to think, speak, and write well, whatever medium we may be currently engaging.

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