New ways of speaking, new ways of writing, new ways of emailing. Can our language can withstand the OMGs, LOLcats and smiley faces?
The English language is totes changing, because internet.
If that sentence makes you grit your teeth, it's probably best you don't spend too much time online. Like any community, the internet has developed its own vocabulary and slang – and while much of it is silly, from “LOL” to “OMG”, some of it has slipped into the mainstream. Selfie, anyone?
Is this invasion of new words destroying the English language, or is it no more than a next step in a continual evolution. Here's what the experts say.
Professor David Crystal is a leading researcher in online linguistics – he literally wrote the book on the subject, and is seen as the originator of the academic field. We asked him if the web is ruining English: “No,” he said. “No, is the short answer.”
The web is hardly the first technological innovation to impact English, he pointed out. The advent of broadcast television led to similar concerns, but Crystal said the actual shift in language from that technological revolution was “really very small”.
This is true of the internet and other modern technology. “If you make a list of the bits of internet slang that have crossed the divide, we're talking about just a handful – you know, LOL, that sort of thing,” he said. Back in 2004, Crystal tried to count such words, building a glossary of “netspeak”, “textspeak” and other tech terms that were being used in mainstream discourse. “I remember spending a very boring week trying to count all the new words and sentences that had come about in the previous ten years because of the internet,” he said. “I ended up with a total of about 1,000, or maybe 1,500.” If he repeated the word count today, he reckons that figure would top 5,000, especially if variations such as “Twitterverse” and “Twittersphere” were included.
This may sound a considerable tally, but Crystal pointed out that English already has “heaven knows how many million” words, and with this genre we'll see a few more. And this is why it's “nonsense” to say the internet has caused a deterioration in the English language, because the impact on vocabulary has actually been tiny.
Grammar is changing, because internet
The internet's impact on English is even smaller on grammar than vocabulary, despite the outcry surrounding the evolution of “because” into a preposition, Crystal said. You're likely to have seen that sentence construction in headlines or social media posts. As linguistics blogger Stan Carey notes: “'Because' has become a preposition, because grammar.”
The use of “because” in this manner isn't new, however, said Crystal. “It's been in the language for hundreds of years. It's a fashion. It's always happened to grammar – certain things become fashionable and are very widely used for a time, and then they go out of fashion again. It's not a novel construction in any way, or a novel usage,” he added.
“A typical example of a construction that nobody had noticed before, and then suddenly everybody was using, is 'Yes we can' from Obama. Suddenly, for a few years everybody was saying, 'Yes we can' or 'No we can't.' It became a bit of a meme.”
IDK, check the OED
There are many examples of web slang slipping into our everyday conversations, but a word hasn't officially made it into our language until it's been included in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – and that's not easy for words to do, said Denny Hilton, senior assistant editor at the dictionary. “For inclusion in the OED, we're really looking for sufficient evidence that they're established items [of] vocabulary in English,” he explained. “We're looking for evidence from a variety of sources, for a reasonable amount of time, to indicate that they're actually in established usage and worth being included in the dictionary.”
￼￼￼￼Normally, that would take at least a decade of evidence, but Hilton admitted that the fast pace of technological change means “we're actually including some words a bit sooner than we might have done in the past, because their use is so obviously widespread”.
Some words to have made the cut are clearly new – recently, “hashtag”, “retweet” and “selfie” have all been added to the OED – but other words we assume are modern actually predate the web. For example, many of us believe OMG – an abbreviation of “oh my God” – came about via texting teenagers, but its first recorded use was back in 1917. “It was a one-off at the time, but it isn't unusual to find that a lot of these terms go back further than you might expect,” Hilton said. Even LOL – laughing out loud – goes back to 1989, and was also used as an abbreviation for “little old lady” back in the 1960s.
Many technical words stem from the early computing days of the 1960s and 1970s, and Hilton said the OED team examines the archives of Usenet forums from that era to uncover origins of words. “'User-friendly' is a clear example of a word that started out specifically in the realm of computers in the early 1970s and transferred to mainstream use, developing the more general extended sense 'accessible, manageable',” he said. Increasingly, however, the origin of tech words is likely to be social media such as Twitter.
While other dictionaries add such words more quickly, the OED avoids including terms too early, because it's difficult to determine which of them will remain in use.
“You'll have this sort of flurry of linguistic activity and lots of invented vocabulary, and you get people playing with vocabulary and turning nouns into verbs, and adding linguistic suffixes, and inventing new ways of using the language,” he said. “Then, after a certain period of time it all settles down. The words are useful if they fulfil some kind of semantic purpose. In this case they'll survive; they'll have longevity.”
Hilton believes that with a lot of the emergent internet vocabulary we're seeing right now, we're in that initial period of activity.
Language evolves without every word being included in official dictionaries – indeed, the best source for looking up an odd term online isn't the OED but the Urban Dictionary. Such slang isn't limited to the internet of course, but many of us are more likely to come across words on the web than those verbally traded by teens.
And it is because of this that shortened phrases (“totes” from totally, “amaze” from amazing”), as well as abbreviations such as LOL, deteriorations such as from OMG to Ermahgerd, and entirely new words such as “derp” make their way into our speech, as well as our dictionaries.
“Slang is limited to specific groups, even if they're large ones such as regular web users,” said Crystal. “It's an identity thing for that particular group. No general dictionary will include a word just because it's got some slang use by a group of nerds in California.”
As ever, such slang is more likely to be used by younger crowds, confounding older generations. Crystal said the best example of that is texting abbreviations – the L8Rs (laters) and so on. As such constructions have become more mainstream, they've fallen out of favour with younger people.
He recounts a visit to a school where he collected examples of text messages to analyse and was surprised by what he found. “There wasn't a single abbreviation to be seen. You know, not a single LOL, not a single CU Later, or anything,” he said.
He asked the teenagers what happened. “'We don't do that any more. It's not cool',” he revealed. “And one lad said to me – and this is the most illuminating point of all – 'I'll tell you when I stopped abbreviating... when my dad started'.”
Thumbs up for emoji
Abbreviations may be dying, but multiple reports suggest a growth in the use of emoji, the small pictures you can embed in messages to show you're happy, sad, or a dancing lady in red. Research by Instagram revealed that 40% of comments on the photography app feature emoji, and earlier this year, Australian foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop even responded to a BuzzFeed interview using the icons.
Vyvyan Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University, examined emoji usage for a TalkTalk report, finding that 80% of 2,000 Brits polled said they regularly use emoji, with 40% saying they've sent messages entirely using the icons. As before, the shift to pictures has been fastest among younger people, with Evans saying his research found that 31% of people over the age of 40 don't use the icons, and more than half aren't clear what most of them even mean. “There's a definite age split,” he said.
Indeed, three-quarters of those between the ages of 19 and 25 said that “it's easier to express emotions through emoji rather than text,” Evans said, adding that many of the age group believe that “using emojis in conventional text can improve their ability to interact”.
Evans suggested that emoji can help “punctuate” a sentence. Body language, intonation, sentence pace and other verbal queues can all help suggest meaning, Evans pointed out, and all are missing from the written word. “Communication... doesn't just require language, which is basically a system of meaningful symbols and a syntax of grammar that combine them together,” he said. “It requires these other features as well. And that's what emoji is doing in digital communication – it's enabling people to add additional meaning [that's] not coming through necessarily from the text.”
If you've ever suffered from a colleague interpreting your email not as intended then you'll see the value in appending a cheerful face to a sentence to make your meaning clear. Indeed, Evans believes emojis have already started to sneak into business emails, following their simpler predecessor the emoticon, combining punctuation symbols to make expressive faces. “I suspect that the increased use of emoji will come in a sort of standard email context where they weren't before,” he said, pointing out the rise of devices such as smartphones and tablets, which include emoji in their keyboards.
You may not understand every word you read online or every emoji in text messages, but then you're not supposed to – all that slang is designed to make communities mesh, and that necessarily means that everyone else is left out.
Perhaps the best example of that divide comes from Christopher Poole, best known as the founder of messaging board 4chan. Back in 2010, he was asked to explain some terminology during the trial of a man accused of hacking the email account of former US politician Sarah Palin. The court asked him to define “Rickrolling” – tricking someone into clicking a link leading to a video of Rick Astley's “Never Gonna Give You Up” – as well as “lurker”, “troll” and some other terms not suitable for a family magazine.
That the judges and barristers weren't aware about Rickrolling may well be amusing to those of us long tired of the joke, but it doesn't mean the structure or vocabulary that is the English language is in danger. It's so flexible you can't hurt it, no matter how many LOLs, derps or icons of Japanese food you throw at it.
Indeed, Crystal suggested that the silly terms Poole was asked to explain may not be a sign of degradation of English, but of creative language skills. “I love the language play that comes up,” he said, pointing to Twitter-inspired slang. “That 'tw' consonant cluster at the beginning of the word is a very unusual consonant cluster for English. I mean, if you look it up in the dictionary, you don't find many words beginning with 'tw'. And so, it was ready for exploitation... [and we've] generated a huge number of playful expressions.”
He said words such as “twictionary”, “twitterholic”, and even “twitterrhoea” show “how the human propensity for language play is alive and well”.
So OMG, maybe the internet is good for English, because imagination.