Monday, February 15, 2010


Initialisms are akin to acronyms and, like them, a recent development in the English language. One current example would be LMAO, which represents the phrase "laugh my ass off", I guess. It's evidently used to express an emotion with the minimum of characters in the instant messaging or texting environment. OK, as someone with a background in linguistics, I recognize that language, like everything else, changes over time. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. But I don't know about initialisms.

From time to time, I bump into my twenty-something daughter on gmail and get into a chat with her. My entries are normally complete declarative sentences or interrogatives, with subjects, objects, modifiers and punctuation and capital letters where appropriate. Her responses are, LOL, ha ha, and so on. I envision an individual sitting on a couch before a television, perhaps with music playing on some nuevo electronic device, texting on a mobile phone while gazing at a laptop screen. Super multi-tasking.

Be that as it may, what's the relationship between initialisms and communication? For decades I've personally deplored what seems to me to be the degeneration of colloquial English. The spoken vocabulary has become smaller and smaller. The trend would inevitably lead to a language composed of grunts and mumbles similar to that of a troop of baboons. While most literate Americans probably have some idea what common English written words mean, at least in a general sense, they don't ordinarily use them in spoken conversation. And written conversations no longer resemble the missives of the past, committed as they are to the email format. So we have initialisms. But what is the meaning conveyed by four capital letters? How much nuance can we detect in LMAO? Further, it's obvious that an enormous amount of this retro-communication is taking place. What is its purpose? It can hardly be the transfer of meaningful information. And, in fact, even normal telephone voice communication has exploded in dimension. What kind of information is involved? Has it any signifcance at all? Are mobile phone addicts texting initialisms really communicating?

Whatever the answers to these questions might be, count me out. I don't intend to learn to speak Finnish or Esperanto or American Sign Language or Ebonics. And I'm not going to communicate in initialisms.

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