Over the past few years, something peculiar has happened to the English language.
People everywhere have released themselves from a very strict alphabet diet and are now bingeing on vowels and consonants at every opportunity. Take one look at the Facebook profile or text messages of anybody under 25 – admittedly it’s women and girls – and you’ll see them peppered with phrases like “I loveee youuu” and “Omggg that’s amazinggg”.
When I was a teenager, abbreviating words to within an inch of their life was all the rage – giving rise to phrases like “cya l8r” and “lol”. These days, it’s all about lengtheningggg and stretchinggg words, emoticons and even acronyms. It’s like typographic Pilates.
But it’s not only teenager girls getting in on the act – weirdly, this style has also trickled into the texts and emails of fully-grown, functional adult women. Sometimes even in professional contexts. Where once signing off an email or text with “thanks” was sufficiently cordial, it now looks cold compared to “thaaanks”.
Linguist Michael Erard told The Atlantic that word lengthening, also referred to as expressive lengthening, stems from a desire to incorporate verbal speech in digital communication. “When people talk, they use intonation in a number of varied and subtle ways … There’s a lot of emotional nuance that can be conveyed that you can’t do in writing.”
Studies of text communication also links the use of word lengtheners to vocal fry – a linguistic habit of dragging words out in the back of one’s throat, a common tic among young women Zooey Deschanel’s slight drawl? That’s vocal fry.
Word lengthening is by no means a new concept, but it’s certainly more present now than ever before (and arguably is used far, far too often).