Sticks and Stones @ #EWF16

Are technologies such as Twitter and texting degrading the English language? Does it matter that the 2015 Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year is an emoji?

At the 2016 Emerging Writers Festival, I joined Oscar Schwartz and Emilie Zoey Baker to argue that technology is the best thing to ever happen to language in the Sticks and Stones #EWFdebate against Telia Nevile, Gillian Cosgriff and Lydia Nicholson. Here’s my arguments from our winning debate.

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ICYMI, we ❤️ language. All of it. And words. And all the forms they take.

We are pro-moji. We are 👍 to txt-spk, netspeak, txtese, texttalk, t-x-t-k, TXTish, S-M-S, M-M-S and more.

We ❤️ technology. And for me personally, all these things come together in my work as a Twitter poet. So I’m pleased to have torn my introverted Twitter-addict self AFK to help sing their praises. F-T-Dub. For the win.

AFAIK, txt-talk was born from necessity. In that it took s-s-s-s-o-o-o b-b-l-l-l-o-o-o-o-o-o-d-y-y-y l-l-l-o-o-o-n-n-g to spell anything out on our first mobile phones. It made us faster, more succinct. Our communication shaped by 160 characters. And our desire to avoid a second text-message fee.

But the evolution of txt-talk is more than just a pragmatic response to technology. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to it. It’s #poetry.

Think about it… Just like poetry, txt-talk is a constrained, pithy, condensed form of meaning. The shortest possible way to say the largest possible thing. Both forms of communication (or, dare I say it, art) are about honing our words to the barest minimum. To create something bigger than themselves.

Like Twitter poetry, txt-talk is fast and efficient. And both have different layers, subtext and richness that allows us as readers to unpack and interpret the larger meanings for ourselves.

First Speaker for the Affirmative Telia Neville told us that her interpretation of such text talk is abrasive and likely to inflict physical pain. But to single out tech speak for such a bad review denies the obvious misuses of language we hear everyday on the #57 tram.

We cannot blame technology for human user error. If you’re getting a headache, ham on your laptop, or seduced by romeos who can’t tell their negative gearing from their civil war sagas, maybe you’re just doing it wrong.

But just like with poetry, there will always be purists – dusty and book-bound. But in both cases, there are no real rules to stay pure to – just examples of what has come before. And besides, rules were meant to be broken.

Both forms play and experiment with grammar and syntax – what it means to write a sentence, a stanza, a text, a sext, a phrase. Any word can be shortened. Any image commandeered. Any combination used in place of many thousand words.

Punctuation is optional. Or exclusive. A lone mark sent out to ask a question in place of what a dozen words used to do. Four exclamations make a point without the need for further explanation.

Txt-talk, like poetry, is at the forefront of language, not holding it back. Pushing the boundaries. Repurposing and recreating. Making new words in new ways. Initials and acronyms. Reductions, shortenings, omissions. What’s said, what’s not, and even how it’s laid out on the screen or on the page.

And as our moderator Michael Nolan has said, we also have a whole new world of accidental or ‘found’ poetry examples, thanks to our hurried finger mistakes or unreliable predictive text or auto correct functions.

And a new range of accents or dialects, informed by our choice of platforms or even the age of our technological devices: rom ‘I lesser-than three you’ to ‘smiling face with heart-shaped eyes’ to ‘couple with heart’ in your choice of woman-woman 👩‍❤️‍👩, man-man 👨‍❤️‍👨 or woman-man 👩‍❤️‍👨 variations. (Currently only available in yellow-skinned versions, but with a full range of ethno-diversity surely on its way).

There are also some interesting similarities in terms of reputation. IDK why, but ‘poetry’ is still a laden word. Can still be seen as elitist and impenetrable. Txtage has a different sort of stigma, if perhaps one seen at the other end of the same scale.

As our opponents have attempted to argue, they can both be taken as a sort of code. An in-joke. Inaccessible and incomprehensible if you don’t have the key. Allegedly. But as the Emerging Writers Festival shows us year after year, poetry isn’t a lofty, intellectual thing that’s only for academics or other poets. And txt-talk isn’t simplistic or lazy, nor just for the young or uneducated.

As we’ve heard, these new forms of techno-communication are simultaneously emergent and a continuation of the ongoing evolution of language: from the emergence of writing itself, to the development of the printing press, to everything that’s come since. ASAP was originally a military term that started being used in WW1. XOXO has its roots in Christianity, not Gossip Girl, and started to be used to express kisses, faith and fidelity as far back as the Middle Ages. Technology might have heightened and sped things up, but the phenomenon isn’t new.

This is not the unintelligible garble of the millennial age. This is Shakespeare, creating new words. A patois or pidgin that recognises our cultural and digital diversity. A profound cultural asset waiting for the world to catch up.

But whether this dismissal is ageist, a new sort of class snobbery or just a stubborn resistance to inevitable change, that change is still coming. #FreeTheEggplantEmoji. Viva la revolution.

Because we are being liberated from the constraints of our languages. Watching as they cross and code-switch back and forth. Watching the blunt become nuanced, the coded become mainstream, with a Twitter poet even winning last year’s Prime Minister’s book prize. And what I love is that we’re also watching it start to come full circle.

What txt-talk does better now than more formal English is to imbibe it with tone, emotion and a sort of literary stage directions. To give us the key to how it should be read. As my team-mate Oscar Schwartz has told us, it gives back to the written what body language and facial expressions offer in terms of spoken words. Can show if we’re dizzy 😵, busy, 🏃, cheeky 😉 or screaming in fear 😱.

And it adds to the spoken a new lexicon, with WTFs, OMFGs, ROFLs and LOLs well on their way to becoming fully incorporated acronyms, just in the way that SONAR and RADAR have done in the past. And that, in turn, is changing written language again – in that we now have to write “I actually LOL’d” in order to send the right message.

Txt-talk and technology is not a placebo for IRL engagement. It’s certainly not unholy. It’s not an all purpose drowning dog. It’s a pick and mix. A choose your own adventure. It’s poetry. Democracy. Enhanced communication. Our language is a cyborg. And who knows what might come next?

So join us @ the ampersand of language, not the ‘or’. An addition, not alternative to what has come before. Sure, the word of the year was an emoji, but we don’t have a one in one out policy in our dictionary compilations.

As Melbourne poet Maxine Beneba Clarke says:

dig the revolution,
take out a sub (…)
You cannot click here to unsubscribe.

In cyberspace, the poets really are the best dressed.

So YOLO. What’s the point in fighting when change is this exciting? Embrace it. ❤️ it. Shape it. Take it with a GSOH. Don’t see a stop signal, see a ✋. Say a 🙏 for the future of communication. Don’t put off to tomoz what you can so easily do today.

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You can also catch my pre-match with Telia Nevilla on ABC Books & Arts.

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