Language constantly under construction is like a home. A home serves its owners a vital function, who over the years make minor improvements to it. Generations go by and accumulate these minor improvements. The building can gradually becoming unrecognizable to past occupants.
By comparing the current building with its old blueprints, we may understand the extent of the improvements, and the same is true for language. Although English students can usually only understand Shakespeare’s 400-year-old plays, without university-level language classes, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, published 600 years ago, is almost indecipherable. There are pillars, but it’s an entirely new system.
Centuries might seem like a reasonable timeframe for linguistic change, but a curious thing has happened in the last few decades: English is transforming far more rapidly. Why? Because internet.
Our new online tools for communicating have ushered in a new era of linguistic alteration, where different rules for spelling, grammar and syntax can be coined and popularized in just a few years. In the book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, author Gretchen McCulloch dives deep into internet culture, and spell out the linguistic changes the web has birthed.
Most of us think of novels, magazines and newspapers if we imagine writing for a second. These media is the way we acquired and sharpened our reading skills for the vast majority of us. As for actually writing, with school essays and test papers, we typically cut our teeth.
Now, with these newspapers, there’s nothing wrong, but they all have one crucial thing in common: they’re all structured writing styles. Not only does structured writing mean extreme political journalism or dense scholarly posts, it is any sort of edited prose that emphasizes structure, often at the cost of instant flair and creative flow. This also requires self-editing: you may not have had the privilege of a copy editor combing through your English essay in the tenth grade, but you were mindful of following the laws of correct spelling, grammar and syntax while writing.
For a long time, the vast majority of what anyone read was formal writing. After all, it costs money to print things with paper and ink – why waste cash on misspelled words and stodgy sentences? But things changed late last century, when the internet and mobile phones arrived.
These technologies dramatically expanded the amount of writing in everyday life, making it a day-to-day necessity for ordinary people. Phone calls gradually lost ground to emails and text messages. To reach an audience of thousands, you didn’t need to make it past the scrutiny of an editor anymore – you just needed to start a blog.
And we used a particular type of language to write these new regular messages: casual prose. This is immediate and unself-conscious prose, either by newspaper editors or our own internal ones, untouched. It is raw and conversational when we email, or converse in internet chat rooms, just as if we were speaking.
This explosion in informal writing began to change the nature of communication, and even language itself. Acronyms, for example, are common ways to save space in formal writing – think NASA or NATO. And since the informal writing explosion, acronyms have been repurposed by the masses for the same reason, but with very different results. Today, most people know that “BTW” stands for “by the way,” and “OMG” is shorthand for “oh my god.”
In this way, the rules of language are no longer handed down to us from figures of authority, like teachers and dictionary editors. With the internet, we’ve all become involved in crafting new forms of expression.
Take a road trip across the United States from east to west. In New York and Washington, you’ll overhear people referring to sugary carbonated drinks as “soda.” Keep driving west, and you’ll hear it called “pop” in the area roughly from Detroit to Utah. Then, arriving in Arizona or California, it’s back to “soda.” Why is this?
You’d probably make a good linguist if this observation fascinates you. They’re interested in why individuals behave differently. Linguists have been coming up with theories for why language differs and what affects our habits of speech since the middle of the nineteenth century. And the emergence of a groundbreaking new research method has helped them immensely: the internet.
Linguistic analysis has been transformed in many respects by cyberspace. Before, for study, linguists had to document or transcribe individual conversations; this was time-consuming, and in the presence of a researcher, subjects might change their speaking habits. But today , researchers have millions of examples of people communicating informally and organically, with a large supply of social media posts and text messages to study.
Let’s look at a couple of established linguistic theories for why we speak differently, and then consider how internet linguistics helped strengthen their impact.
First, there’s the influence of networks. People pick up language habits from the social groups that surround them, like family or workplace networks. In one study in 1970s Northern Ireland, linguist Lesley Milroy investigated the changing pronunciation of the word “car” into something more like “care.” In one Belfast community still in transition, Milroy found that certain young women were leading this change. These women all worked in the same store out of town, where customers and staff alike were already using the new pronunciation.
Another significant point is posed by Milroy ‘s research: the impact of strong and weak relations. These are social science words that explain your connection to other individuals, good for close friends and family members, weak for casual acquaintances. Having several poor links contributed to further linguistic transition, Milroy concluded, since this exposes the speaker to multiple forms of talking. Strong relations, on the other hand, seem to linguistically have something in common.
In this way, it’s easy to see how the internet supercharges language changes. The web is a bundle of weak ties, with social networks, forums and chat rooms all facilitating contact with people outside your core networks. Twitter, for example, is a primary driver of linguistic change because it encourages you to follow people you don’t already know.
Internet users are surprisingly easy to parcel up into a few categories, and being a member of one group says much about your communication habits. The first group, Old Internet People, are the most influential in the development of internet language. This relates to what linguist Salikoko Mufwene calls the founder effect, which states that the earliest members of a language group exert a disproportionate influence on its later development.
Old Internet People were the first ones online when the internet was still in its infancy. They’re distinguished by a high level of computer literacy, because getting online in those days required navigating a computer using coded commands and knowledge of a few programming languages.
Because it needed technological skills to access the internet, it only attracted those who were interested in technology, meaning that everyone had something in common. They hanged out on networks that today would seem prehistoric to us: sites such as Usenet and Internet Relay Chat apps. Old Internet people developed acronyms such as “BTW” for “by the way,” and “FYI” for “for your records.” They also developed simple emoticons such as:-) and:-. (In order to express emotion to each other.
The next groups to come online were Full Internet and Semi Internet People. These logged in during the late 1990s and 2000s, when the internet was becoming accessible and mainstream.
Full Internet People tended to be younger and still in school, discovering the web at the same time as their classmates. And they used it to chat to people they already knew, on services like MSN Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger.
Semi Internet People got online at the same time as Full Internet People, but mostly used the internet for work and other functional tasks, like reading the news. They might maintain real-world relationships online, but are generally more skeptical about electronic communication. They’re often highly skilled in specific programs or tasks, like Photoshop or Microsoft Office.
The next two groups online were Pre and Post Internet People. Post Internet People are those too young to remember life without the internet, growing up with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as their default. Pre Internet People are older individuals who resisted going online because the learning curve intimidated them. Soon though, Pre Internet People were forced online when the internet became a necessity of everyday life, for things like applying for a passport or checking the weather.
An fascinating example of language shifting online communication is that the time has come to represent passive-aggressiveness. Today, in chat-style discussions, we interact with each other, with messages gathered and displayed on a single screen between two people. With this format, not with a duration, but with a new post, it became more common to separate clauses. Over time, it started to express frustration or passive hostility by ending a message with a duration. And conservative outlets such as the New Republic had picked up on this change by 2013.
Another custom unique to the internet is using capitals either for EMPHASIS or TO COMMUNICATE THAT YOU’RE SHOUTING. That’s because, when we talk online, many of the tools we use to communicate are lost. When speaking, we emphasize words by articulating them louder, faster or at a higher pitch; when we want to shout, we simply shout. Using capitals as substitutes for these was a way to fill the void in the nuance of our real-life expressions.
And once we look past its disarming grin, even the simple smiley 🙂 emoticon is pretty complicated. Again, it started as a substitute for something lost in the cyber world: a genuine smile. With text-based messages being more ambiguous than speech, this was a useful way to communicate a message’s true meaning.
But nowadays, if your best friend messages you with “you’re a terrible person :-),” she’s using the emoticon for something else: to signal that her message is a joke. A smiley can also tone down the aggression of a message – your boss might text “don’t forget to be on time tomorrow :-)” to gently raise the issue of your recent tardiness.
“Lol” also has multiple meanings. Invented by Old Internet Person Wayne Pearson in a chatroom in the 1980s, it originally indicated laughter. But soon “lol” evolved – today, it can be used to signify appreciation of a joke, to defuse an awkward situation or to indicate irony.
The last meaning is important, because irony is notoriously hard to communicate in writing – in speech, we can use changes in pitch or an arched eyebrow. This is a problem that far predates the internet: in 1688, the British natural philosopher John Wilkins proposed using an inverted exclamation mark to indicate irony, but unfortunately it never caught on.
However, what caught on was surrounding ironic text with ~sarcasm tildes~, like when you say “I’m ~so~ happy to be at the house of my parents for Christmas.” By adding tildes when they’re not needed, the author implies that after all, the substance of an obviously serious message is not so serious. The sarcasm tilde may also have gained popularity because it mimics a cynical sing-song voice’s rising and dropping tones, such as when we say “soooo.”
Check out my related post: How would life be without the internet?