Obvs is Phonological, and it's Totes Legit

Recently, NPR ran a story called Researchers are Totes Studying how Ppl Shorten Words on Twitter. It was primarily focused on what they called 'clipping,' for which the author of the article provides the example "awks," for "awkward." As far as I know, aside from the researchers interviewed by NPR, no one has done any scholarly work on this phenomenon, and as far as I can find on JSTOR and Google Scholar, no one has published anything on it.

The general consensus among regular folk is that the phenomenon is:

  1. annoying
  2. associated with young white women
  3. the result of character limits on Twitter, or choices about spelling economy in text messages.

The first two are likely in some ways true: I don't have the data to prove it (yet!), but it does seem to be most deployed by young women (who are often the leaders of linguistic change), and -- as is often the case -- because of its association with young women, it is negatively socially evaluated by the general public. My issue is with the third point. Most people take it as so obvious as to be axiomatic that 'clippings' like "obvs," and "totes legit," are the result of spelling choices. Even the Dartmouth researchers interviewed by NPR are influenced by this assumption, and were perplexed to find that people still shorten their words on Twitter even when they have plenty of characters left to write.

Not only is the assumption that it's orthographically motivated wrong, but it's a perfect example of where linguistics can provide clearer insight than can be afforded by Big Data style data mining and statistical analysis without a grounding in the past 100 years or so of the scientific study of language. Perhaps it's confirmation bias that leads people to assume that this phenomenon originated in written communication. The fact is:

Truncations like "totes" for "totally" arise out of the spoken, not written, language.

They can be described entirely in phonological terms, without recourse to writing. Moreover, they are clearly sensitive to phonological environment: specifically, primary stress. It's not entirely clear why a written truncation should be sensitive to stress. If that weren't enough, sometimes what NPR calls 'clippings' are significantly longer than the word they're supposedly an abbreviation of. Case in point:

bee tee dubs is more than 3x longer than "BTW."

So, what's really going on?

Let's break it down. There are a few key features:

  1. Words are truncated after their primary stress. A word like totally has three syllables, but its primary stress is on the first: tótally. The style of truncation under discussion is extremely productive, and can be used on new words. All of the truncations are sensitive to primary stress. When I asked women who use these forms, the consensus was that indécent becomes indeec, expósure becomes expozh, and antidisestablishmentárianism becomes antidisestablishmentairz. Note how spelling changes serve to preserve what remains of the pronunciation of the original word.
  2. As much material as possible from the syllable following the stressed syllable is incorporated into the end of the new word (that is, the onset of the following syllable is resyllabified as part of the coda of the stressed syllable).
  3. A final fricative is added if not already present (marv for marvellous). For most people who employ this kind of language play, there is actually a more restrictive rule: a final sibilant is added. This means that truncations can end with sh, zh, ch, s or z, and if there is no sibilant present, an s or z is added.

Voilà! An explanation that accounts for most of the data, explains forms that are not predicted by spelling rules, and makes correct predictions about novel forms.

The astute, Twitter-savvy reader might not be totally satisfied with the above, however. Such a reader might ask, "but what about forms like legit? Soz (sorry)?  Tommaz (tomorrow)? Bruh (brother)? "

First, it's necessary to point out that truncation is not a new phenomenon in English. Part of what motivated me to look into this phenomenon was outrage that anyone would suggest legit arose from Twitter or texting. Three words can disprove the 'twitter hypothesis': MC Hammer. 

Of course, a quick Google Ngram search will show that legit was in common use in the 1800s. Bumf, slang for tedious paperwork, is actually a truncation of 16th century 'bumfodder,' (i.e., 'toilet paper'). What's new here is the addition of the sibilant. Interestingly, it's now possible to find reanalyzed truncations on Twitter, so alongside legit, one may also see legits.

With regards to soz, appaz, tommaz, there is actually a very simple explanation: these forms are much more popular in the UK, and the speakers are non-rhotic. That is, they speak dialects that "drop the rs" (in point of fact, there is compensatory vowel lengthening in the contexts where r is not pronounced, so the r is not entirely absent). The above description actually perfectly describes how you get soz in a non-rhotic dialect. Underlyingly, it's still sorrs.

Finally, bruh, cuh, luh, and others. These are truncations, but in a different dialect of English: African American Vernacular English (although bruh has been borrowed into other dialects, like twerk, turnt, and shade have been recently). In these cases, the word is truncated after the primary stress, but subsequent material is not added to make a maximally large syllable coda.

This is where things get interesting. Truncation in both AAVE and other dialects of English leads to 'words' that are otherwise ill-formed. This may be part of why some people believe that such truncations are "annoying,"  or that their users are "ruining English." The /-bvz/ in obvs is not otherwise a permissible cluster in English (and most native speakers actually find it quite hard to say. Some 'fix' it by changing it to 'obv' or 'obvi,' the latter being the standard English diminutive or hypocoristic truncation). There, as far as I know, only four words in English that end with /ʒ/: rouge, garage, homage, and louge -- all of which are borrowed words, and some speakers 'correct' them to /dʒ/ (as in "George"). That sound does occur, however, in the middle of words like pleasure, treasure, measure, leisure, and so on...and ends up word final in truncations like plezh, trezh, mezh, leezh, and so on.

So what's the takeaway from all of this? Well, I hope it goes without saying, but young women aren't ruining English, even if they maybe speak a little differently than, say, your high school English teacher. Moreover, truncated forms like 'obvs' have nothing to do with writing. If they were simply shorthand for texting and Twitter, it would be a lot easier to wrt smthng lk ths. Instead, truncated forms are the result of language games that follow specific rules and are based on native mastery of phonology. They're closer to Pig Latin (or French Verlan, or Arrunde Rabbit Talk) than the  babbling of a "speech impaired halfwit."

So next time someone says it was totes a plezh to make your acquaints, or responds to your "how're things?" with "my sitch is pretty deec," recognize that they are playing a language game that requires total, intuitive, mastery of English...and maybs play along, rather than making things totes awks for everyone.



©Taylor Jones 2014

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