The original meaning of “chat” is “chatter”, “prattle”, i.e. talk lightly, informally. It refers to an oral, face-to-face communication, usually amicably, perhaps inconsequentially, or flirtatiously. These days however, the term is primarily used for a particular type of written exchange that retains many of the features that characterize spoken communication and that appears to get further and further away from the traditional written form of communication.
Speech or oral communication manifests itself in spontaneous utterances usually without too much reflection upfront. Typically, it happens with at least one other person present – the so-called interlocutor -, or within a group. Language theorists call this “synchronous communication”, as it takes place in real time and works with instant feedback, including facial expressions and body gestures. Writing on the other hand is asynchronous and formal. It involves preparation, thought and structure. When writing, you might start by creating an outline, and then putting ideas into (more or less) carefully crafted sentences, looking up the odd word, going over the whole thing at the end and tweaking it here and there. Clearly, speech and writing are two very different beasts.
Or used to be. Until we all started chatting.
For a few years now linguists, teachers and parents have been voicing their concerns about the deterioration of (young) people’s writing skills. Many blame the social media, tweeting and chatting. Others maintain that these forms of written conversations are actually an outlet for creativity, providing young people with the opportunity to express themselves in writing when otherwise they wouldn’t.
Chats are spontaneous, unreflected, subjective, sometimes opinionated or emotional. They are never complex or elaborated, and they do not involve any planning or complex constructions. They are interactive and have an immediate audience who is usually on the same wavelength. That means they share values and attitudes allowing an easy flow of “conversation”. Sentences are often incomplete, and always short. One sees all sorts of contractions and phonetic peculiarities that reflect youth jargon, dialect, sociolect etc. Standard orthographic rules are often flaunted. German, like English, uses contractions: “sone” instead of “so eine”, or “Was is?” instead of “Was ist?”; omissions: “Fliegst morgen?” instead of “Fliegst du morgen?”. English examples would be “wanna come?” “I dunno”, “I hafta” or “she hasta”…
With a chat, infringements against “correct” use of language is not a crime, neither at the level of syntax, semantics or orthography. Punctuation and capitalization of nouns (obligatory in German) are often absent. The priority is: Keep it short and simple. One reason for introducing emos, modern man‘s hieroglyphs.
Chats often include interjections such as “wow” or “ähm”, “tja”, “gell” which are characteristic of casual spoken communication. And it goes without saying that German chat exchanges have a good sprinkling of English (or American) vocabulary: happy, shoppen, relaxen, no stress, and of course acronyms such as lol (laughing out lout), or “rofl” (rolling on floor), omg (oh my god) etc.
The chat is in fact a hybrid between speech and writing.
And because chats and tweets and blogs have become so prevalent, the gap between speaking and writing is gradually getting smaller. Written communication has started to be much closer to spoken conversation. In fact we now have the concept of “conversational writing”.
By that we mean something less extreme than “writing like you speak”, but nevertheless borrowing certain techniques from oral communication. The idea is to write in a fresh and engaging way, get away from stilted, unnatural phrases. Get rid of “Writerliness”, which I take to be the writers‘ equivalent of what “Translatese” is in the world of translation.
Concretely, this means writing in a way that is attractive and straightforward, using everyday words that readers can understand, avoid unnecessarily long sentences and passive constructions. For impact, you may go against certain rules. For example the one that says you should not start a sentence with “but”, “and” or “because”.
Here is a useful website that discusses “conversational writing”: https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/conversational-writing/ and contains hints and tips, including this one:
To spot “writerliness” in your writing, read your copy aloud. Does it sound like writing? If yes, bin more gobbledygook, and simplify your sentences.
If you substitute “writerliness” by “translatese”, and writing by “translation”, you get exactly what I always advise translators to do. But if you have a “writerly” source text, you have to work twice as hard to achieve the desired result.
Conversational writing aims at being personal without being “lazy”. Unlike a chat, it observes a (limited) set of rules and structure, and its main objective is to keep the reader interested and get the message across clearly. In a light-hearted tone that is not rambling and keeps the reader wanting to continue. Such texts are also relatively easy to translate. Unlike some content that leaves everyone scratching their head, and fails to engage the reader, or open up a conversation.