Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tweets, Tweeps and Twerps

Any new technology that is used for communication is bound to lead to some concern about its impact on language use. In his book, A Better Pencil, the linguist Dennis Baron looks at how writing technologies such as the pencil, pen , typewriter and word processor developed and traces worries about these (then) new forms of communication. So it's not a great surprise to see that digital communication - text messaging, Facebook, MSN and Twitter being four recent examples - has spawned its own set of worries.

Twitter is often viewed as a fairly limited means of communication, forcing its users to transmit simple, terse 140-character messages to their followers, compressing and trimming language to create anodyne, bite-sized chunks, but in an article for The Guardian this week, the poet Carol Ann Duffy argues that texting and tweeting are brilliantly creative tools for helping people think more carefully about how they're communicating.

"The poem is a form of texting ... it's the original text," says Carol Ann Duffy. "It's a perfecting of a feeling in language – it's a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We've got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It's a kind of time capsule – it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form."

It's an appealing argument and one that I think is very true. Writing creatively is not so much about writing as much as you can in as flowery and dense form as possible but finding the best ways to say what you want to say. Sometimes, the process of editing yourself down to fewer words, or finding a new combination of words, is exactly what you need to make yourself a clearer communicator. Poetry is often prized for its sparing use of telling words, and tweets can be like that too, honing the editing skills of their senders.

Inspired by this (if slightly confused: Duffy was talking more about texting than tweeting) The Guardian has launched its own Twitter poetry challenge which you can find here.

Another creative dimension to Twitter is covered by the BBC News magazine where the new words inspired by Twitter are surveyed. We get: tweeple (or tweeps), a blend of Twitter and people; tweet cred, a compound of tweet and street cred; and twisticuffs (my favourite), a blend of Twitter and fisticuffs, in other words a fight on Twitter.

Exploring the tw- unit (sound? morpheme?) in more depth, the article goes on to look at other words formed with the same letters and makes the point that many of them are deliberately playful, perhaps suggesting that there's something inherently silly in the sound.

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