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The curious cases of Twitter

26 Jun 11 | Re: The new frontiers of linguistics

Like a lot of people, I’m interested in Twitter because it gives me short, timely updates from my friends, from celebrities like the Rock, and from organisations like Opta Sports (although they seem to rather like the sound of their own tweeting). Like considerably fewer, I’m also interested in Twitter because of its innovations in grammar.

Assuming you know what a vocative case is, you’ll know that English doesn’t normally have one. Latin vocatives are sometimes translated as “O Brian” or whoever, but that’s more as a fudge to get the meaning across than because the “O” form is a true English vocative. But on Twitter, there is a vocative form. Every Twitter user, in fact, has a vocative form of their name. Some are regular (@AlexisPetridis for Alexis Petridis); some are highly irregular (@Monstroso for Charlie Higson). All can be recognised because they start with the linguistically innovative @ sign.

This is very useful. If you want to address someone, you can use the vocative form of their name. Say “@AlexisPetridis, I enjoyed your hilarious review of the Paris Hilton album”, and it’s not only clear that you are addressing Alexis P, but thanks to the way Twitter works, Alexis P is quite likely to see your tweet and hear what you’ve got to say to him. In this way, it works just like a technologically-powered Latin vocative.

But that’s not all. This vocative form has an extra flexibility that enables you to transform a word in another case into a vocative as well. Let’s take the example above, but change “Paris Hilton” into the vocative form: “@AlexisPetridis, I enjoyed your hilarious review of the @ParisHilton album.” Here, the original meaning is preserved, but the vocative term “@ParisHilton” does an extra job: it tells the reader (and the Twitter system) that the remark is directed at Paris Hilton as well as mentioning her. Paris Hilton can then find it, read it and feel pleased that her album is still fondly remembered, albeit for providing good material for Petridis’s eloquent mockery.

And as if introducing a ground-breaking vocative into the English language wasn’t enough, Twitter features an additional case that I don’t think exists in any other language. I’m going to call this case the referrative case. This is the one that’s formed using a # symbol.

Let’s say you want to talk about Wimbledon; you might say “I bet Novak Djokovic wins Wimbledon!” Here, one might say that Wimbledon is in the dative case, that it’s in that single, catch-all case that most English nouns are usually in. On Twitter, you have the option of using the referrative case and saying instead: “I bet Novak Djokovic wins #Wimbledon!”. This is a way of saying that Wimbledon isn’t just in the sentence, it’s the topic of the sentence; conceptually, Wimbledon is what that sentence is all about.

As far as I know, this referrative idea is very new. The closest thing I can think of in spoken or normally-written English is when you use an adverb to premodify a whole sentence, eg “Hopefully, Novak Djokovic will win Wimbledon”. On Twitter, this could be expressed more elegantly using the referrative form: “Novak Djokovic will win Wimbledon #hopes”. Now that we see it on Twitter, it seems almost strange that other languages don’t have this form. Certainly Twitter users are finding endless uses for it, both to provide context and to add extra subtleties and nuances to what they are saying, or ironically undercut it.

It’s a shame, in fact, that there’s no obvious pronunciation for the # character. It doesn’t need one, because like other web words such as pwned and lmfao, it’s not designed to be said; the reader can voice it internally however he sees fit, or maybe it’s possible to read such a word without voicing it at all. But if there were a way of speaking the referrative case, perhaps it would enter spoken English. Just think of the possibilities if it did!

Posted by MR HYUN at 19:05

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