The distinguishing style features of the SMS Afrikaans of Generation X and the contribution of these features to the creation of social meaning

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This article aims to describe the distinguishing style features of the SMS Afrikaans of Generation X and to demonstrate how these features contribute to establishing social meaning. Generation X is frequently overlooked in research about various forms of computer-mediated communication, such as Short Message Service (SMS), due to the perception that its members are “digital immigrants” rather than the more interesting “digital natives” of the Millennials and Generation Z (Prensky 2001:1–2). Moreover, Generation X is often typified as the “neglected ‘middle child’” in that it is subservient in scholarly interest to the more populous Baby Boomer and Millennial generations (Taylor and Gao 2014), notwithstanding the significant impact the members of Generation X have on the development of the information and communications technology that pervades modern life (Neal 2018). The context-specificity of computer-mediated communication makes it inadvisable to generalise from these cohorts to Generation X (Bieswanger 2013:466). Thus, this research addresses a noticeable gap in our understanding of Generation X, specifically regarding the South African context and the forms and functions of SMS Afrikaans.

Our research’s theoretical point of departure is that SMS language fundamentally reflects its users’ speech rather than their writing (“texters ‘write it as if saying it’” according to Thurlow and Poff 2013:177). The implication is that SMS language contains the same features characterising the natural language that govern conversational exchanges between interlocutors. Thurlow (2003:14–5) accounted for the attendant form of SMS language through what he termed “sociolinguistic maxims”, namely brevity and speed, paralinguistic restitution, and phonological approximation. The maxims manifest in the microlinguistic and typographical selections SMS users make to express themselves. In this study the former encompasses phonological, morphological and orthographical phenomena (Bieswanger 2013:463). In contrast, “typographical features” refers to emoji and reflects their meteoric rise over the past decade and their prevalence in the language data. The microlinguistic and typographical features serve as resources through which users make stylistic choices that enable them to convey social meaning. This assertion draws on a rich body of work introduced by Labov (1972) and subsequently elaborated on by, among others, Giles (1973), Bell (1984), and Coupland (2007). The latter explains speakers’ stylistic choices based on the notion of language as performance, whereby a speaker’s metacognitive awareness of language results in his or her maintaining some distance from it, enabling the person to “perform” stylistic choices that carry social meaning (Coupland 2007:146). Ultimately, these stylistic choices may be understood through sociopragmatics, according to which the purpose of an utterance (or SMS message in this research) is contextually governed by the relationship between language and the sociocultural environment (Culpeper 2021:27). Sociopragmatic considerations are what prevent SMS language from degenerating into proverbial Wild West territory, instead rendering it a form of language that is “functional, principled and meaningful” (Tagg, Baron and Rayson 2014:219).

The research data was collected from the posts of 60 members of a WhatsApp chat group created to plan the 30th anniversary of their graduation from high school. Thirty-five (58,3%) were female and 25 (41,7%) male, resulting in a reasonably balanced sample from a gender perspective. The participants were all born in the period 1965–1976, thus establishing them as members of Generation X (Duh and Struwig 2015:94). This method of sample selection also highlights a key limitation of this research, as all the participants were white, reflecting the racial segregation that characterised South African society during the participants’ years of schooling. The chat group far outlived its original purpose, as the participants continued actively contributing to it for three years. Their enthusiasm resulted in a rich corpus of language data covering a wide range of topics, thus enhancing the validity of our findings by grounding the analysis on natural language data – a point emphasised by Verheijen and Stoop (2016:251) in their compilation of a similar corpus based on “authentic, original, unmodified messages that were composed in completely natural, non-experimental conditions”. The University of South Africa’s policy on research ethics (2016) was strictly followed; amongst others, this included obtaining informed consent from the participants before data analysis. The latter was performed in Microsoft Excel (version 16.61.1), which was suitable for analysing the 4 001 substantive messages contained in the corpus.

The microlinguistic features were assessed using a framework developed by Verheijen (2018:117–9) to study the SMS language of Dutch youths on, amongst others, WhatsApp. Accordingly, the phonological characteristics were described based on accent stylisation, alphanumeric homophones, phonetic respellings, homophones based on a single letter or number, clippings, inanity, reduplications, contractions and initialisms. The orthographic characteristics included excessive capitalisation, the duplication and omission of various punctuation and orthographic marks (such as the acute accent and accent grave, aphaeresis, circumflex and diaeresis), and the omission of spaces between words. Several categories in Verheijen’s framework were omitted from the analysis (examples include standard language abbreviations and the use of extra spaces between words), given that this research focused on the distinguishing style characteristics of SMS Afrikaans. Accordingly, these features were defined as those whose spellings have not yet been codified and standardised in sources with imprimatur, such as the Afrikaanse Woordelys and Spelreëls (AWS, 2017). Our analysis of the participants’ use of typographical features centred on emoji; in particular, we emphasised these picture characters’ nature, occurrence and placement within the participants’ messages. How the participants employed the microlinguistic and typographical features was assessed based on the occurrence of nonpropositional messages (such messages are based on the notion of the so-called phatic Internet – Xie and Yus 2021:468), the practical use of emoji (Siever 2020:136–43), orthography and the idea of “text as play” (Deumert 2014:122–45), and two of the principles in the identity-formation framework developed by Bucholtz and Hall (2005), namely emergence and indexicality.

The most frequently encountered morphological features were initialisms, contractions, and clippings, with reduplications and inanity less common. Accent stylisation and phonetic respellings were the most prominent phonological features, whereas homophones based on a single letter or number and their alphanumeric congeners were rare. The participants had therefore enacted Thurlow’s maxim of brevity and speed primarily through reductive morphological processes. In contrast, phonological approximation was achieved mainly through substitution processes. The orthographic features displayed a more direct opposition between reductive and additive operations, with the former primarily including the omission of punctuation and orthographic marks and the latter chiefly encompassing the repetition of punctuation marks and the excessive use of capitalisation. Emoji were prevalent throughout the data, occurring in 1 795 messages (63,3%) compiled by 54 participants (90,0%). The majority of these messages (946; 52,7%) contained emoji depicting some type of human emotion, whereas messages using emotionless emoji (607; 33.8%) and those embedding both types (242; 13,5%) were less common. Accordingly, Thurlow’s maxim of paralinguistic restitution was realised through the participants’ use of emoji. The preferred placement of emoji was at the end of a message, with other locations (such as the middle of a sentence or a word) encountered far less frequently. Nonpropositional messages were relatively common in the data because the participants used 724 photos, 285 videos and 823 messages containing only emoji, exemplifying the “phatic Internet” and the high degree of sociality characteristic of the chat group. The data included several examples demonstrating how emoji performing either a modal or referential function give rise to social meaning, whereas one participant’s prominent, exceptional use of orthography illustrated how this microlinguistic feature could give rise to identity formation. Two further case studies were used to highlight emergence and indexicality as key identity formation processes deployed by the participants to establish their social identities and maintain their online relationships.

The salient findings of this research may be summarised as follows: The distinguishing style features of Generation X’s SMS Afrikaans reflect the technological affordances of WhatsApp and the conversational nature of SMS, with Thurlow’s sociolinguistic maxims of SMS language bridging the gap. The distinguishing features serve as linguistic resources through which the participants create social meaning, which manifests as establishing online social identities and maintaining social relationships. Ultimately, the findings of this study support Coupland’s assertion that language users make stylistic choices to create social meaning based on their metacognitive awareness of language.

Keywords: emoji; Generation X; language as performance; short message service; SMS; SMS Afrikaans; social meaning creation; sociolinguistics; sociopragmatics; style characteristics; WhatsApp


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Enkele onderskeidende stylkenmerke van, en die totstandkoming van sosiale betekenis in, Generasie X se SMS-Afrikaans

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