Orthography as a Political Phenomenon: Why do we write long vowels differently when we textttttt?

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Spoken English, like most languages, makes great use of semantic and pragmatic vowel length. It is not phonemic, meaning that the word you are saying will not become a different word if you lengthen one vowel, but it’s clearly a part of the way we communicate because most of us actively represent it when we text. In most writing systems, a long vowel is represented by emphasizing a vocalic sign, whether it is a glide consonant that stands for a vowel—such as in Abjads like Hebrew, most Aramaic varieties, and Arabic (these letters are called matres lectionis) — or a character that represents a vowel itself  — which is either repeated or somehow embellished with a diacritic or other mark, as is the case in most Roman-based orthographies. Some writing systems, like Ge`ez and Devanāgarī, have separate vowel markings or characters for long vowels that can be related in shape or form, but which are unmistakably distinct from their short counterparts, working in a similar way to the matres lectionis in Abjads. Although it seems almost too functional and straightforward for it not to have been done at some point, I have yet to personally come across a writing system that marks lengthened vowels without involving a distinct “lengthened” vowel or an embellished vowel sign of some kind. That being said, please comment if you know of such a system because I will be very excited to learn more about it. But that’s exactly what we are going to talk about today: the way in which texting has endowed us with a socially-meaningful way to lengthen our vowels without changing or switching out the vowels at all.  

Imagine for a moment that you receive the following text:  “I f*cking hateeeeeeeeeee that they decided to f*ck us over like this.” 

Alright, now imagine you receive this text: “I f*cking haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate that they decided to f*ck us over like this.” 

If your first instinct was to read the word hateeeeeeeeeee in the first text with two syllables, you’re probably not a frequent user of digital communication. So, why is that?  

As far as I can tell, this phenomenon did not appear until texting became a universally-normalized practice in many societies. In literature, purposefully lengthened vowels have always been written in the way that haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate appears in the second text. My thinking is that a very special digital communicator, probably a kid, realized at some point that when we read, we actually look far ahead of the word we think we’re reading to anticipate upcoming words and punctuation so we can determine breath and tone. After realizing this, and after getting tired of having to remember to lengthen vowels in the middle of writing words, this brave hero of modern orthography made history by arbitrarily lengthening the final character. The truth is that there were almost certainly thousands of rogue orthographers who started popularizing this method, maybe without even knowing or remembering. Personally, I’ve seen it used in Spanish, Portuguese, Yucatec Maya, and Hebrew. But there are reasons why I think it serves English especially well.  

The English writing system might have the most frustrating vowel system in the whole world, which makes it sometimes highly difficult and confusing to lengthen vowels by simply repeating the same vowel letter. For instance: if I wanted to lengthen the word bet by adding extra vowel letters, I would end up with something like beeeeeeet which, without context, can be highly ambiguous; it could either be a lengthened version of either bet or beet. Everyone who’s had to look twice at an oh my gooooooood text before knows exactly what I’m talking about.  

These small changes in how we represent our language, like in the environment of the internet, may hardly seem noteworthy, but they exist within a broader web of signs which we heavily rely on in order to make inferences about who we’re talking to and how we should interact with them. The same way that our physical appearance, tone, accent/dialect and facial/hand expressions influence how someone will respond to us in person, I think the way we mark lengthened vowels in digital communication, as well as how long we choose to make them in accordance with the underlying context of the message or conversation, can be important elements of how we communicate online. They can serve to set the tone for an entire interaction, or, in some cases, entire digital relationships. With the ability to set tones with each other on how formal or confrontational an interaction should be, we can actively respond to politically-significant speech-acts in a subtle but meaningful way. It doesn’t require us to explicitly dictate what we want from the conversation but instead it tells the other person what kind of interaction we expect from them. Picture an inflammatory online post: you didn’t write the post, you don’t know the person who wrote it and you don’t comment on it, but you can see the people who have commented on it already. Now, imagine that one of the comments you see, written by someone who you don’t know, reads: “I can’t believe you actually believe this opinion. F*ck off.” 

Now, imagine it appearing with lengthened vowels in all of these different ways: 

“I can’t believe you actuallyyyy believe this opinion. F*ck off.” 

“I can’t believe you actually belieeeve this opinion. F*ck off.” 

“I can’t believe you actuallyyy belieeeve this opinion. F*ck off.” 

To me, these each have different tones and levels of animosity and seriousness to them. I’m curious to hear from other people whether they interpret them similarly. The first of these, the one where actually is lengthened to actuallyyyy, I interpret as being the most aggressive and the most serious. The second one, where believe is lengthened to belieeeve, I interpret as being less aggressive than the first one, but still serious in its tone, placing heavier criticism on the post-sharer’s judgment. To me, the last one seems the least aggressive and the least serious, maybe because it seems like the exaggerated vowels are being used for emphasis but not for focus. My interpretations of these might be completely different from yours. But the reason I mention them is to demonstrate that even when looking at comments from someone I’ve never met, on a post originally shared by someone I’ve never met, I have the ability and the instinct to make judgements (based on things like lengthened vowels) on what kind of interaction the commenter wants from the poster. 

The column is called Orthography as a Political Phenomenon, so I want to encourage you to think about how innovations in digital interpersonal language intersect with the politics of your environment. When historically-minded people look back on our era, what will they say about us and the way that our texting and posting imitated and influenced our politics? Personally, I think that the most prominently political aspect of this shift in digital orthography might have to do with how we each curate our personal experience on the internet and in digital communication by using things like non-phonemic vowel length to influence the formality and tone of our interactions. As you might expect, I think that the people who are innovating our collective modes of online communication by shortening, lengthening, changing or not writing things are adapting our orthography to fit a newer perception of language, and this makes writing much more accurate and nuanced than if we all simply colored within the same lines.