The Internet and Language Change

There are two main things that the Internet is good at. Letting people meet other people who share interests/weirdnesses, and creating arguments.

One of the arguments that everyone seems to come back to is that the Internet, just like text speak, the lack of grammar education in schools and the Norman Conquest, is going to ruin the English language.

In case the sarcasm in the previous paragraph wasn’t obvious enough, I will here state that I think this is completely incorrect.

One of the things that comes most under fire is the use of punctuation, closely followed by “but that’s not what that word means!” I’ve made a couple of blog posts in the past about specific language changes: Because for example. But for this post I’d like to talk about the specific changes that happen on the Internet and why they happen.

See, just about the biggest barrier to text communication is that old, well-loved statistic that when we talk, 80% of the information we gain is communicated through non-verbal cues, like facial expressions, tone and body language1. Of course, that statistic is inaccurate, or at least not accurate in all cases, but it is true that a lot of communication, especially any form of humour, is mostly conveyed in incongruence between what is said and what is implied. Removing nonverbal communication from that equation means that you lose a lot of the ability to convey humour, when you’re using sarcasm, exaggeration, or any other conversational nuance that requires you to say one thing and mean another.

And it’s not just that. Even a sentence that you mean with all sincerity can mean different things based on tone of voice. Ever gotten halfway through a text conversation thinking you were having a lighthearted speculative discussion and realised that the other person thought you were having an intense philosophical/scientific debate? I’ve done this. I found out when the other person accused me of mocking them instead of taking their argument seriously and responding in kind.

The biggest barrier to Internet communication is not, in fact, the words used. Even with second-language speakers, dialects, and so forth, we’re surprisingly good at telling the face-value meaning of a sentence in text communication. Actually, it’s a bit easier sometimes in a text medium, because of things like standardised spelling, being able to take time to process and look up words, and accents not getting in the way (the closest equivalent might be spelling errors, though it’s not a direct comparison).

However, the primary form of communication on the Internet is text. Even on video sites like YouTube, most of the interaction or dialogue actually comes from the comments section, which is entirely text-based. So really, it all comes back to text in the end. Couple that with the fact that there’s a whole generation out there who spend much of their social lives online, and in many cases have friends they speak to regularly but only know online, sometimes because they live in entirely different countries, and you start to run into problems.

Fortunately for us, we’re a resourceful species, so as soon as people started to communicate online, we started to realise that we were having trouble understanding each other in a text context when what was said didn’t exactly match up to what was meant. Some of the ways we get around with are contextual – for example, sarcasm in the form of absurdity does tend to be more pronounced in text. Because we can’t communicate with tone that we think something is absurd, we tend to use things more in the form “Yes, that sounds lovely. And while we’re at it, I’d also like a million dollars and a flying monkey”, or “Yes, I’d love that. Just like I love root canal work without anaesthetic.”

Making the comparison to a blatantly absurd thing, in a sentence form that the reader is used to parsing as meaning absurdity, means that the reader is likely to be understood as being sarcastic without tone of voice or facial expression to back up the interpretation.

Of course, that isn’t always an option, so Internet users are forced to look elsewhere for their sarcasm markers and cues. We can’t use fonts, although italics and bolding can be useful for indicating emphasis – for one, not all computers have the same fonts, and for another, a lot of websites don’t support different fonts in their forums. I think you could make the argument that Comic Sans, and possibly Papyrus, have started to gain a bit of an implication of tone, but it’s not widely used enough to be really called a linguistic convention.

We obviously can’t change the actual words used – some of those have extremely particular meanings, and most of them have a meaning plus associated connotations. It can happen, but it wouldn’t make sense to just cordon off a whole section of words that we only use when we’re being sarcastic or intending to convey a different meaning to that we express. At least, it wouldn’t be the sort of thing that happened as a result of natural language change.

Grammar and spelling are also tricky to change – less so, but still tricky. Particular grammatical constructions, particularly those lacking grammatical parts of speech or with incorrect tense usage, can convey confusion, particularly confusion overexaggerated for comedic effect (The “how do I shot web” meme is a good example of this. If you’re a regular Internet user, you might also think of the difference in how you would interpret “What’s going on?” and “What are this?”). Spelling can have a similar effect – incorrect spelling tends to convey that a person is not intending to be taken seriously, or an indicator that the content of the post is humorous, just like you would expect an adult speaking in obvious baby-talk outside the presence of a baby is trying to convey something beyond the simple meaning of the words. This is not an absolutely effective metric, though, since for this to work, the words have to be misspelled in such a way that it is obvious they were misspelled on purpose, and obviously when you’re dealing with people with varying degrees of reading comprehension and proficiency (and people who just plain make typos), it’s not always going to be obvious when a misspelling is deliberate or accidental.

Mostly, therefore, tone change gets conveyed through punctuation. If you’ve ever listened to someone complain about the poor grammar of Internet-speakers, it’s probably because they a) don’t use full stops often, or b) don’t capitalise their sentences consistently (of course, leaving aside all the complaining about abbreviations, the numbers-as-letters-or-words remnants of when texting had a character limit, or misusing their, they’re and there and similar homophones). However, there is a purpose for this: These are sentence softeners, or familiarity markers. Casual conversation on the Internet is much less likely to involve full stops at the end of posts, and often run-on sentences, to differentiate the tone from formal settings, where full punctuation is more generally used. This can also indicate a question or anecdote where the speaker is understood to be venting their emotions, rather than requiring a reaction or answer from the reader. There are more examples of this, too: a statement followed by two or more question marks is a marker of a confused or bewildered tone rather than a question. For example, “And then she told me she had it all sorted out???” possibly conveys that the speaker doesn’t actually believe it is sorted out. It would be reasonable for this to come at the end of a story involving someone going to great lengths to help this person out, such as a long and difficult travel time, or acquiring something that was difficult to find, only to be told that their effort was unnecessary. In that case, the question marks would indicate a tone of disbelief and frustration.

Other common punctuation indicators are several commas at the end of a partial sentence – most commonly seen in the constructions: “And then she told me she had it all sorted out??? Like,,,” or “And then she told me she had it all sorted out, and I was like listen,,,”. Both of these constructions indicate that the person felt somewhat at a loss for words. They usually indicate frustration, especially with the side-effect of “I didn’t want to say anything because I’d start a fight if I did”.

And one final note before I stop rambling and get to some sort of conclusion: Some text abbreviations like “LOL” have lost any actual  meaning they might have had and have turned into conversational markers. LOL now means that something is said in a jovial tone, or often that the speaker is admitting to something they find slightly embarrassing. It indicates that the text should be read lightly or offhandedly. It no longer means that the speaker is laughing out loud, or expects the reader to believe they are. Used on its own as a response to a joke, it indicates that the joke was amusing, and the speaker wants to acknowledge that something funny was said, but doesn’t have anything particularly relevant to add to the topic or any response.

Yes, the Internet is changing how we use language. It’s just not ruining the language. I don’t think that we’re ever going to end up communicating using emoji as hieroglyphics or anything quite that dramatic, but I think that the Internet has created a whole lot of linguistic markers very quickly, and using the bits and blocks of language that we already had lying around. This meant breaking a whole lot of rules of standard grammar, but ultimately we ended up with something that’s a whole lot more fit for purpose than what we had originally. Which, really, is what language has been doing since it was invented.

I’m going to drop a couple of links in the footnotes to better blogs on the subject, because I don’t have nearly enough time to talk about all of the things that are going on in written grammar.

Thanks to the person who prompted me for this – you know who you are. I’m sorry it turned into more of a rant about specific changes rather than a discussion of changes in general. One of these days I’ll know enough to make predictions, but this is not that day.

 

  1. From a couple of research studies: Discussion here, original study is found in the two studies here and here, and there’s a book on the subject here. The actual numbers aren’t important to the point of the article, but it’s worth the background reading. Those articles are behind a paywall, but if you copy and paste the citation into Google Scholar, you should come up with alternate sources.
  2. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/ – Language Log doesn’t always deal with Internet language, but is a good place to start reading for well-explained linguistic principles. You have to know the rules before you can break them, after all! It’s also very popular and has good discussion in the comments section (though as always, beware of comments sections).
  3. http://asktheleagueofnerds.com/ – Range of topics, but the language rants are accessible and fun. Warning: Strong language.
  4. https://literalminded.wordpress.com/ – Fun and accessible, not always about language change.

2 thoughts on “The Internet and Language Change

  1. While I’m aware that attempting to analyse the changes of languages is something that’s a lot easier to do when looking back at history and very difficult to do in the relative present, I think it’s a very interesting topic – so, thank you for this.

    Also, right at the end, there’s something you mentioned that caught my imagination; using emojis as hieroglyphs. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, at least in English, for a far more mundane reason – that doesn’t easily fit in with how the English language is used – whereas something like Mandarin ( which I have a passing interest in, which shouldn’t be misconstrued as any sort of authority ) might just have something like that happening, because literary characters in Mandarin represent a single unit of meaning ( like “light” or “up” ), so in a few hundred years there might just be a new character to represent what originally was an emoji. At that same extreme, English, as I understand it, might instead get another adjective ( “What a smiley afternoon” ( Although, by that point, the term might not mean what you assume it would mean in the present ) ( Also, I’m fully expecting you to point out that I’m wrong about the word “smiley” in that sentence, and then explaining that it’s actually an adverb or preposition, and that I’ve brought shame on my family ) ).

    Also, I have questions ( which I’m not expecting to be answered in a reply, given that they’re kind of broad ( But I would encourage them answered as blog post topics ) ) on something related to the topic of this blog post: what about spoken language? Have you observed spoken language being impacted by the Internet? Given that people can hear others from across the planet, do you think how English is spoken will shift toward a universal pronunciation? Do you think there might be pockets of people developing their own accents, based not on geographic proximity, but proximity in communication over the Internet?

    • I think that the emoji heiroglyphs thing is less to do with how we write and more to do with how we think. So English could well adapt emoji if we decided that they meant something specific – like in your example: have a smiley afternoon (it’s OK, you were correct), we could see that ‘smiley’ meant perhaps ‘pleasant’ or ‘cheerful’. The problem is not assigning meanings to emoji, it’s covering all the linguistic bases in a language. After all, smiley face can mean ‘good’, clapping can mean ‘wonderful’ or ‘impressive’, but which emoji are you going to assign to “without”? Is it the same one as you assign to “no”? What about “play”? Would there be a way to denote when a string of emoji all come together to form once concept, rather than being read as a series of different concepts? What about verbs like “fill” or adjectives like “variable”? I just don’t think we have enough emoji to depict abstract and complex concepts to make them viable as a language.
      I think they’re great modifiers, though. Tone modifiers, perhaps adjectives if we really get into them. I’m seeing emoji as a sort of sentence-ending speech part already, so it’s not too far a step from there to modifiers.

      I’ll write a full blog post later, but I will say that there are definitely impacts on spoken language based on Internet language. I mean, remember that furor over people saying “lol” out loud from a few years back?

      I think we won’t remove accents and dialects entirely, but we’re likely to progress towards a sort of universal “official” pronunciation, like Received Pronunciation in British English. I mean, I’ve already observed in several people I know that they slip into an American accent (whichever American accent you tend to see as ‘standard’ in Hollywood films – I’m not sure exactly what region of America that one represents) when they’re reporting speech, or quoting someone (e.g. “and then she said …”), regardless of the accent of the person they’re quoting. Also, I have friends who are more likely to slip into American accents when using certain phrases and words. That’s more a TV/video games thing than an Internet thing. At the moment the Internet is too text based to have much impact on pronunciation, but if that changes, we could see similar impacts.

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