U wot m8? How the internet is altering our language

Modern technology, and the impact it has on language, has been the subject of increasing debate over the past two decades. Smart phones and their associated messaging systems are a prominent part of modern interaction; a December report by Bloomberg found that eight trillion text messages were sent last year. For some, this engenders concern that the way we communicate with each other and use dialogue is being adversely affected.

As usage of the internet has exponentially increased, there has been a corresponding influx of associated vocabulary. ‘Viral’ is an apt example. Once only relevant in the scientific context to denote an agent of disease, it also now refers to a piece of online media that has been extensively circulated within a short period of time.  John E Joseph, Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, takes a pragmatic approach, saying: “One dramatic effect of technology has been to increase the amount of interpersonal communication people engage in, particularly ‘real-time’ communication across unlimited distances”. He went on to explain that increased communication is often responsible for linguistic change. What is unclear, however, is whether the redefinition of words (and perhaps growing tendency towards abbreviations during online communication) is a natural product of time, or a detrimental force. “If digital natives are fitting their political self-expression inside 140 characters for Twitter, then I suppose their language has been shaped by technology”, says John Hale, Associate Professor of Computational Linguistics at Cornell University.

Of course, language is constantly in a state of flux, and always has been. Fear is perhaps then derived from the sensation that technology has accelerated this change beyond our control. Controversy arose last year when the Oxford English Dictionary named an emoji (the one crying tears of joy, for reference) as one of its ‘Words of the Year’. A word can be defined as ‘any distinct unit carrying meaning’, and, technically, emojis do fulfil that criteria. Language purists were scandalised, nonetheless.

However, plenty of linguists have jumped to the defence of the small, pictorial symbols, claiming they can convey emotion where written text often fails.

“Emojis handle the absence of intonation to convey emotion. Think of how many ways you can say ‘OK’ to express so many different attitudes”, says Dr Andrew Hippisley, Professor and Director of Linguistics at the University of Kentucky. It is estimated that as little as 30 per cent of the meaning taken from face to face conversation comes from the words used; the rest comes from non-verbal cues, such as tone, pitch and facial expression. For some, emojis restore the empathy that can often be lost during online conversations.

Ultimately, linguists seem to view the changes in language that have been induced by technology as neutral. For Professor Joseph, transformation in language is the same as variations in music style, or fashion: “For centuries, people have debated whether language change represents ‘progress’ or ‘decay’. In functional terms, every language ‘works’ for the people who speak it, and that doesn’t change.”

Image: William Iven

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