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The Language of the Internet

The rapid encroachment of technology into our lives over the last few years has had a dramatic impact on our language and the way we communicate with one another. It is a personal view as to whether this impact has been a positive or negative one. In my mind, it goes to demonstrate the inherent ability of the English language to absorb and accommodate new inclusions into its vernacular.

The Absorbant Language

Our language has faced many dangerous times in its history, and has always managed to survive and even flourish in the most unlikely of situations. It has been bashed around, twisted and morphed by centuries of foreign linguistic invasion and cultural shifts, and yet where other languages have diminished and fallen into disuse, the English language has grown and risen to the challenge, and grown to become the lingua franca of today, with arguably the richest vocabulary and variation of expression and nuance. Take the absorption of a plethora of French words into our vocabulary, resulting from the dichotomy of class in English society where English was the parlance of the poor and lowly, and French the language of distinction and high class. This is demonstrated in culinary vocabulary by the differentiation between the animal and the food. We don’t eat cow, we eat beef (from the French boeuf), nor do we eat pig, rather we eat pork. Many higher register words in English still remain in their original unaltered French form; RSVP for example, or objects d’arts.

Prior to this, the Viking invasion of our shores also brought with it tempestuous times for our native language, but it withstood the barrage of the foreign tongue, and adapted to include the new language, rather than reject and die. This Norse influence is still visible in language today, words such as “bylaw” (bylög (‘by’=village; ‘lög’=law; ‘village-law’), “race” rás (=”to race”, “to run”, “to rush”, “to move swiftly”) and many more. The video below from the Open University nicely explains the history of the English language and the twists and turns it has gone thorugh.

The New Words

So it is English’s ability to adapt itself and absorb that has resulted in its prolific dominance today. And it is now in the grip of another shift to accommodate the advent of a new requirement: technology. This newest shift has resulted in the introduction of an entire sub language on a par with medical language in its size and variety. It ranges from the colloquial and incidental, to the sophisticated and technical. Recent years have heralded the advent of words such as “byte”, “meme”, and “linkbait” as well as adding new definitions to exisiting words; “troll”, “cloud” and even, “like”. There has also been an influx of branded terms which have quickly developed into almost fully fledged verbs which we are able to decline, “Google it.”, “He has been Facebooking all day”. Twitter is an interesting one as from its brand name a new meaning of the verb “to tweet” has come about. In fact it has so rapidly become engrained in our culture that the statement, “The birds in my garden were tweeting all morning.”, perhaps conjures the image of a flock of birds frantically typing away on miniature iPhones. “@blujay_1994 Jst saw @robinred stack it off the foneline. LOLZ!”. The verb “to follow” has taken on new meaning as well; the following phrase could either be entirely normal, or entirely creepy: “I’ve been following you since last Thursday.” Context is key.

The Generation Gap

At this point, it is worth adding that this rapid development of language has happened so quickly it has created a pronounced linguistic generational divide. This has always been the case as words rise and fall out of popularity and use as dictated by fashion, and follows a generational trend stemming largely from the simple fact that the younger generation desires to differentiate itself from the one that preceded it. Yet this variation in vocabulary has largely been mutually intelligible, for example you might never say it, but you know what “groovy” means. However now we have a whole subsection of commonly used language whose meaning is potentially lost on a large section of society. This is a generalisation of course, but it is there.

The Acronym Explosion

WordCloud

This rapid development of the English language is necessary to accommodate the exponential growth in technological advances. We keep creating new things, and need something to call them. But are we becoming lazy and uncreative? All you need to do is look at the sheer number of acronyms accepted as independent morphological entities. “LOL” has gone from being “L.O.L. meaning “laugh out loud” to having its own semantic value and even being a developed verb, “I lolled so hard.”, “I’m lolling right now.”, “If I’d seen it, I would have lolled.” (that last one was a bit of a stretch, but still makes sense. Then there’s:

  • ROFL
  • LMAO
  • OMG
  • YOLO
  • BRB
  • FML
  • TIL

Not to mention the truncation of words and use of numbers to represent letters, e.g. “today” becomes “2day”. Vowels become superfluous in a desperate bid to squeeze messages into character limiting platforms such as Twitter and, back in the day, text messaging. “Happy Birthday Mate! Have a great day. See you later.”, becomes: “Hpy Bday m8. Hv a gr8 dy. C U l8r.” Hideous.
Misspelling and poor grammar is also rife; be it owing to laziness, lack of education, or for tenuous comic effect (Can I haz cheezbrger?). “Phone” has been downgraded to “fone”, apostrophes run rampant and the subjunctive has all but died.

Must we just accept these changes to the way we communicate as just another example of our ever-changing and fluid language morphing once more to adapt to a new invasion of technology and laziness? While other nations protect their languages by installing linguistic institutions, such as the RAE in Spain, English is an open source language, a fact to which it outdoubtedly owes a vast amount of its success.

I’m of the opinion that we are currently in a state of flux linguistically, this recent shift in language structure and use is still too young to properly assess its long term effects. One thing is certain, the technological vocabulary is here to stay, but will there come broad scale rejection of the poor grammar and misspelling? There are certainly people fighting against it, whether they be slightly self-righteous individuals trolling (oh hello new verb!) comment threads, or entire communities such as the Grammar Nazis Community on Google+.

Perhaps it is only now so noticeable because never before has so much colloquial exchange been written down, not to mention publicly displayed. Prior to the social media revolution people used to converse face-to-face (remember that?), and you can’t misplace an apostrophe in speech, and the word “today” is always pronounced “2day”. Yet now we are Whatapping (there’s another one!), tweeting and Facebook IMing (oh, another) so much that we are bound to look for shortcuts, ways to save our tired little typing fingers and reduce the risk of RSI, and to ensure that the minute details of our lives are documented globally as quickly as possible. Cynic? Moi?

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