JUNE 22, 2012
How technology remakes language.
ONE HAS LATELY heard much of the hashtag. That is, the Twitter symbol #, used to categorize a tweet. Charlie Sheen’s first tweet, for example, was famously: “Winning ..! Choose your Vice... #winning #chooseyourvice.” #Winning has gone on to live in irony across the Twitterverse, in mockery of the eternally less-than-winning Sheen. But even President Obama recently urged students to tweet their senators about raising the interest rates on federally subsidized student loans with the hashtag “#DontDoubleMyRate.”
The new thing, however, is using the word “hashtag” in conversation. Especially if you are under a certain age, you may be catching people saying things like, “I ran into that guy I met—hashtag happy!” or, in response to someone complaining, “My flashlight app isn’t working,” perhaps you have heard the retort, “Hashtag First World problems!” A college student not long ago reported a favorite witticism to be appending observations with: “Hashtag did that just happen?”
Given that Twitter, along with texting and instant-messaging, is so often thought of as a dire threat to the writing skills of the American adults of tomorrow—not to mention to the English language and therefore civilization itself—what in the world does it mean that people are now speaking in Twitter? Not much, actually. Twitter may be changing the way we talk but not in a way that is cause for concern. In other words: Hashtag chill out.
THE SPOKEN HASHTAG is part of a general trend—one rarely treated as a scourge, generally barely perceived, and actually a sign of the zeitgeist. I refer to a tendency to frame ourselves in conversation as performers, from an ironic distance, in a way that would have been impossible before movies and television began to deeply permeate modern life. “Hashtag happy” elicits a mental picture of the speaker viewed from a distance, labeled with the word happy. Think of the way someone often describes having received great news while miming a holler, “Yeah!”—pumping his fist, putting on the grimace one would have while actually yelling, but uttering the cheer sotto voce. It’s a cheer in quotation marks—a cheer framed and viewed from afar. One could not do this without living and breathing film and television as we do. What reason would a rainforest tribesman have to depict himself cheering with the volume turned down?
Nor is it unusual for written conventions to make their way into speech. Acronyms are rife in modern speech: VIP, NATO, NGO, MILF. Then there are expressions such as “e.g.” and “i.e.” and “with a capital ...”—all of which are so well-established that they feel like speech to most of us. But they emerged from writing and would make no sense without it. It’s not intuitive for illiterate people to break words down into isolated sounds or letters, as acronyms require; they are more likely to sense that words are composed of syllables, that is, chunks of sounds.
Many might feel that there is something different about the spoken hashtag—that it seems slangier than “e.g.” and so many other expressions. It’s one thing when people say things like, “It was just a mess, period,” pronouncing a punctuation mark, but something different when people start bringing texting’s “LOL”—“laughing out loud”—into spoken language, along with the even cuddlier version “lolz.” The former seems like tipping our cap to blackboard stringencies; the latter may seem like mussing someone’s hair after they’ve already been out in the wind—isn’t casual speech messy enough already? There is a point worth noting here, but not one too dramatic or revolutionary.
This brings out another reason the spoken hashtag is less insidious than it seems. In their brevity, their tendency toward the spontaneous, their subjectivity, and often their pungency, texting and Twitter are a lot like speech—and in fact, are only writing in the technical sense. Back in the day, there was usually a casual language learned unconsciously on mother’s knee and a formal language acquired more carefully in school and from books. However, if there is casual speaking and formal writing, then one can imagine that there might be some bleed, such as with formal speaking. All societies exhibit this tendency to at least some extent. Homer, whose works were chanted in all their elaboration from memory and were only later committed to writing, is one example. In the United States, there was old-fashioned oratory of the “Four score and seven years ago” variety, for which audiences used to turn out and in which schoolchildren were trained.
However, in modern America, talking the way we write is a marginal practice. The flowery speeches of old are no more, and, even when we give formal addresses, they are more conversational than William Jennings Bryan could have ever imagined. What we manifest, however, and quite often, is the other kind of possible “bleed”: writing the way we talk. It used to be that letters and notes were about all there was in this category. Today, however, e-mail, texts, and now Twitter have changed communication profoundly. And, in their come-as-you-are atmosphere, hashtags are writing in the physical sense but speech in their tone, immediacy, and shagginess. The spoken hashtag is very much a sign of our times: Americans are talking like writing once again—but predictably for our increasingly oral and informal era, the writing being talked is essentially a form of talk itself.
And, as talk goes, the whole spoken hashtag business is likely a passing trend. Fifty years from now, clever obsessives will consider it anachronistic when someone uses a spoken hashtag in a movie set in 2018. All eras have their ways of being cutely ironic, and all leave the language no worse for wear. In the old days, there was the “Calling ...” expression—“Calling Dr. Freud!” to comment on someone’s seeming neurosis—or the recent “... much?” formulation. “Obsessive much?” asks the friend of the person wondering whether she should iron her socks.
It wasn’t so long ago that the scourge of civilization was supposed to be the informal writing used by people composing e-mails. Thanks to “thx” and other similar abbreviations, yesterday’s handwringers foresaw doom. The response to this today would seem to be: “#Sotenminutesago.” Language marches on, proud and unafraid.
This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.