Topic 4: Language Variation on Social Media
The study of language variation is associated with social differentiation as social groups display different reactions to change through their attitudes and choices of language variants such as vocabulary (Mesthrie et al., 2000:110). This essay aims to explore language variation through a global messaging application known as WhatsApp. The communicative events analysed have been organized into three categories which are expressing concern, exchanging compliments and showing support.
Additionally, it will consider the various social factors and affordances of social media which affect the language variation.
WhatsApp is a free messaging app which is a popular means of communication, with 1.5 billion worldwide users in 2019. WhatsApp has heavily impacted language variation and shaped the way we use language on social media, as, it has introduced social media users to new methods and mediums which accommodate self-expression such as the use of emojis, GIFs, images, videos and voice recordings.
Ma?z-Ar?valo (2018:147) states that WhatsApp is of particular interest to variationist sociolinguists as it showcases peoples ability to adapt and colonize communicative competence in any channel.
Social factors influence the way people choose to express themselves through textspeak (Gouws et al.
, 2011:20). Bock (2013:70) describes textspeak as a shorthand term for chatting using forms of social media. Textspeak is a reference to the various linguistic features of social media text which include contractions, acronyms, non-conventional spellings and non-lexical features such as emojis (Bock, 2013:70). Additionally, textspeak is often informal and gives people the flexibility to create their own linguistic conventions which suit a particular need within their text messages (Gouws et al., 2011:20). These needs often depend on the context of the conversation, such as the age of the communicators and the register the conversation deems acceptable. Using Addendum 1, an analysis of how the language varies between the two recipients will be provided. In this particular category, the recipients are both women, however, they are of different age groups. Addendum 1a denotes a conversation held with a 30-year-old woman. The recipient makes use of various forms of textspeak to convey concern such as the acronym omw which represents the expression oh my word and the contraction dbn for the word Durban. Furthermore, the recipient sends short text messages which suit her need to convey her concern in a manner which is quick and effective. The register of the conversation seems to be informal due to these forms of textspeak, but there is also a certain level of respect and distance that is kept throughout the conversation and seems to be required in this context. This can be seen in the way the speaker greets the recipient with slm which is a contraction for the Islamic greeting salaam and shows respect. The conversation shown in addendum 1b is held with a middle-aged woman of 47 years whose language varies as she has a more formal way of texting. This is shown through her use of full sentences, capital letters and punctuation such as question and exclamation marks. Unlike in addendum 1a, punctuation acts as a medium in which her concern is expressed through her text. However, she also makes use of a non-lexical item, the shocked face emoji, which aid in the expression of her concern and this can convey that the recipient is more comfortable with the speaker.
Social media allows people to share their thoughts and feelings, however, these interactions only occur within the appropriate contexts (Waterloo et al., 2017:1813). Bock (2013:72) mentions that the establishment and maintenance of intimacy between friends requires reciprocity and a certain level of vulnerability through the sharing of feelings. Typically, compliments on social media platforms exchanged between younger age groups vary in their expression as they are more exaggerated on social media. This is because social media allows for anonymity as instead of facing the person you are sitting behind a screen (Bock, 2013:72). By analysing the screenshots in addendum 2, we can observe how language varies in the compliments of two girls of different age groups. Addendum 2a characterizes a conversation with a teenage girl of approximately 16 years compared to addendum 2b which is held with a young adult of 20 years. In addendum 2a, there is an abundance of emojis. Emojis can be used to fulfil different language needs in an online conversation. These needs include maintaining a conversational connection and interacting playfully. The emojis displayed in addendum 2a function as a response to compliments and indicate the emotions which the speaker and recipient feel towards each other in this certain context (Cramer, 2016:505). In addition, there is an excessive amount of slang words used such as queen and wifey as well as the expression yoh which is typically a South African slang word and is an alternative for the word wow. It adds effect to the recipients message as the word is elongated with the addition of a numerous amount of the letter h. Furthermore, the register of the conversation seems like a casual and informal exchange between the sender and the recipient as they seem to have a close relationship with each other. This is indicated through the vernacular language and lack of punctuation. Therefore, the excess use of emojis is accommodated in this communicative environment. In addendum 2b, there is less use of emojis and more words which are being capitalized. The use of capitalization seems to emphasize the words almost as if it is being yelled out loud. The recipient in addendum 2b is more reserved with emojis than the recipient in 2a. The language seems to vary in addendum 2b as the speaker and recipient do not seem to have a close relationship and the emojis seem to fulfil the function of reciprocity and maintenance of the relationship. In addendum 2b, mediums such as GIFs are used to express emotion. The GIF has a similar function to the emoji in that it provides additional emotion to the text of the recipient. Although a GIF is wordless, the facial movements and gestures allow the GIF to be meaningful and express actions through WhatsApp text.
Within social groups, the social norms for expressing emotions differ and often what is acceptable in reality is not always the same as what is acceptable online social media platforms (Waterloo et al., 2017:1814). Showing support on WhatsApp is expressed through different mediums depending on the social factor of age. Addendum 3a denotes a group chat consisting of four girls of the ages 19 years and 20 years, whilst addendum 3b illustrates a conversation held with an elderly woman of approximately 65 years. In addendum 3a, support is expressed through the inclusion of celebratory emojis to show excitement and is used as a substitution for the lexical item congratulations (Cramer, 2016:505). Additionally, the mood and tone of the conversation are expressed through certain slang terms such as woohoo and yay which express delight and make the register casual. In addendum 3b, support is not expressed directly in terms of specific words but is expressed through the structure of the sentences formed by the recipient and the speaker. The language of addendum 3b varies to addendum 3a as there is a certain level of respect which the sender adheres to within the conversation because of the age of the recipient. Furthermore, the emojis used act as a medium to express physical gestures. In addendum 3b very little expressive emojis are used as this typically displays informality and friendship between close friends, however, one emoji is used to express a certain physical gesture. The recipient also sends contracted messages such as fr which is for which indicates that the conversation between the speaker and the recipient is casual and wslmz which is an Islamic greeting and returns the respect shown by the speaker. Other Arabic terms are used by both the speaker and recipient such as inshallah and alhamdulillah which express the mutual respect held within the context of the conversation. Language varies in terms of the use of punctuation to indicate support as it shows that the speaker is interested in what the recipient has to say.
Conclusively, the older recipients seem to use language more formally as they use full sentences and punctuation more often than those of a younger age groups do. Younger age groups tend to use an excessive amount of non-lexical WhatsApp affordances such as emojis and GIFs. However, textspeak between the older and younger age groups vary as the older recipients tend to use contractions more than younger recipients. Instead of contractions, younger people use slang words and a more casual register compared to older generations.
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Cramer, H., de Juan, P. and Tetreault, J. (2016). Sender-intended functions of emojis in US messaging. Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services. New York: ACM, pp.504-509.
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Waterloo, S., Baumgartner, S., Peter, J. and Valkenburg, P. (2017). Norms of online expressions of emotion: Comparing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. New Media & Society. 20(5), pp.1813-1831.