02 Aug 2016

Language Purists Look Away Now: How the Internet Transmits Language Change

It’s inevitable that any language changes over time. New words are created, old ones fall into disuse, and the meanings of words shift

Social media has enabled speakers of all languages to interact with a lot of people across a wide geography. This isn’t something that humanity has ever seen before. When it happens, any innovations in language can be transmitted from person to person.

It isn’t so much the case that language is changing any faster than it has in the past, rather that technology is enabling that spread of language evolution much faster than has ever happened before.

Although language changes might previously have been able to transmit very quickly within a social group, it’s now the case that these changes can be transmitted to a wider group much faster.

Language evolves at a faster rate as a result. But the results are wider than this. Because of the intimacy and anonymity of social media, we share more personal information with a wider audience than we would do offline. As a result, our communications are more intimate and more informal.

Because it’s largely written communication and the internet values brevity, there’s also a prejudice in favor of any expression change that offers a faster, more succinct way to get a point across. This has helped spread the popularity of slang such as ‘bae’ and ‘SO’ for a romantic partner – both faster than saying boyfriend or girlfriend.

Grassroots language change

Social media also gives an accessible platform to a wide audience. It’s no longer necessary to go through a traditional publishing avenue to reach an audience, meaning unpolished and highly niche content can still have a platform

This means anybody can potentially contribute to the language’s evolution by sharing their own method of communication. It used to be the case that authors and journalists influenced language the most; now there’s more of a grassroots effect.

The word ‘selfie’ emerged from an Australian internet forum discussion. That a casual conversation could spawn a word that became the Oxford Dictionaries ‘Word of the year’ 2013 reflects how anyone, anywhere, can now influence language through even the most casual chat.

Social media has not just spawned entirely new words but it’s also helped migrate the meaning of words we were already using.

Facebook’s had an influence on the meaning of words such as ‘friend’ and ‘like’, subtly shifting the sincerity of their meaning.

A ‘troll’ is no longer consigned to Scandinavian mythology but seriously discussed in mainstream press. The word ‘troll’ has also become a verb. It’s quite common to see existing words appropriated to describe our relationship with new technology.

‘Bullying’ has become a portmanteau with ‘cyber’ to give us ‘cyberbullying’, a term we’ve only recently come to need. Even the term ‘social network’ has itself been cobbled together from existing words to describe the new communication phenomenon.

It isn’t just English that’s impacted by the interactions on social networks. French has an acronym ‘MDR’ (‘mort de rire’) which corresponds to ‘LOL’ (‘laughs out loud’). The Swedes use ‘asg’, actually a shortened form of ‘asgarv’, meaning laughter. Thais use ‘555’ because the Thai word for ‘5’ is ‘ha’ – meaning ‘555’ signifies ‘hahaha’.

The internet is now our main influencer

What’s especially curious is how the internet is not just influencing our language, it’s also becoming the key influencer on language.

Technological developments such as TV and radio have been highly influential on the way we speak and write but the internet is stealing our time away from these forms of media. Our consumption of media is no longer mediated by local broadcasters, so in theory we have a wider choice of which media we consume.

It’s unlikely that broadcast media such as TV or radio influence us in quite the same way as interactive media such as the internet. Using the example of the chat forum that spawned the word ‘selfie’, it’s possible to understand how the interactive nature of the medium would be more likely to lead to another user instantly starting to use the new word in order to continue the discussion.

That’s one of the reasons why new words and new ways of using language spread so quickly online – new ideas about language aren’t just broadcast to passive listeners, they can be picked up instantly and put into immediate use.

One of the advantages of the internet – for linguists at least – is that it’s actually possible to track the spread of new uses of language and new words. A team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta looked at a huge number of tweets sent between 2009 and 2011 to identify when new slang terms arose and how they then spread across the US. They conceived a map that shows how these new words traveled.

The team found that words tended to originate in urban areas, particularly those with a sizeable African American population. The new words spread across Twitter, and transmitted especially well between cities that had similarities economically and ethnically.

The similarity of the demographics in the city was more important than how close they were geographically. Although the study focused only on one social network out of the many active ones in the world, it was clear that the medium was highly effective at transmitting language changes between populations that had things in common.

Although some people may despair of the influence the internet is having on language – the annoying acronyms and the tendency of majority languages to eclipse minority ones – it’s certainly an effective medium for advancing changes.

The internet seems to be uniquely efficient at transmitting changes in our language, in fact much more so than other forms of media.

Ultimately though it’s merely a piece of technology enabling humans to do what they have already been doing for millennia – adapting language to fit changing times.


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