Voldemort can’t put a Dark Mark on Twitter

The argument that “kids these days” are degrading the English language is a tired one, but that doesn’t stop grown-ups from making it.

The latest offender is actor Ralph Fiennes — known to our generation as the Harry Potter series’ Voldemort — who took the time last week to denounce one of the greatest social innovations in recent memory: Twitter.

Fiennes, who was promoting the upcoming film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” blamed “a world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter” for eroding modern language, and suggested that longer words are becoming a problem for today’s speakers.

But is it really true that Twitter is shortening our words?
University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman found data that suggest otherwise. Liberman, who figured Fiennes was viewing the past through rose-colored glasses, compared the text of “Hamlet” to the 100 most recent tweets from the Penn student newspaper’s Twitter account.

The results disprove Fiennes’ claim. As it turns out, “Hamlet” has a mean word length of 3.99 characters. Meanwhile, the Twitter account averaged 4.80 characters a word, hashtags not included. (The Daily Tar Heel’s tweets, according to my calculations, average about 4.65 characters per word.)

But people’s perceptions are unlikely to change when it comes to Twitter, which is disproportionately used by young people.

Even esteemed linguist and thinker Noam Chomsky denounced the social networking site. In a blog interview earlier this year, Chomsky said Twitter “draws people away from real serious communication,” and “is not a medium of a serious interchange.”

Chomsky, who does not use Twitter, evidently is unaware of how often Twitter is used to link to news articles and other online resources, facilitating our access to the “serious communication” he desires. Twitter was never meant to replace books and essays, and just because the site imposes a character limit does not mean it confines the way we think.

It’s also worth noting the interesting social trends that have developed in recent years. As it turns out, there is a wealth of information you can learn about people just from their tweets.

Like where you live, for instance. The typically conversational nature of tweeting has led to the formation of regional Twitter dialects that can pinpoint your location within a couple hundred miles, a Carnegie Mellon University study found.

For example, Twitter users in general might spell something “sumthin,” but in Boston it’s more likely to be “suttin.” Something “cool” on the East Coast becomes “coo” in Los Angeles but “koo” in northern California.

There are even dialects for emoticons: A Stanford University study on Twitter and language found that older people are much more likely than younger people to type their emoticons with noses: Think :-) instead of :).

Naturally, tweets containing a nosed emoticon such as :-P are unlikely to also contain the words “Bieber” or “omg.”

There is no reason to suggest tweets will replace longer forms of communication. The fact remains that Twitter provides a valuable linguistic resource — 140 characters at a time.

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