4 Ways the Internet Has Changed the English Language
Go back ten years and you would have found endless hand-wringing articles about how our use of the internet, MSN messenger and texting was ruining everyone’s vocabulary and we would soon be able to speak in nothing but grunts and emojis.
While these dire predictions had some, slim basis in fact (you’ve probably heard someone say “lol” aloud in place of actually laughing), for the most part they’ve failed to come true. Looking at the big picture, global literacy rates continue to rise. It’s tricky to see whether literacy rates might correlate with internet use; internet use is usually higher in wealthier countries, and wealthier countries usually have higher literacy rates.
Yes, you’ll encounter many more error-ridden articles online than you’d be likely to in print media. But on the other hand, you encounter many more articles online full stop, from a vastly more diverse range of people who in many cases, had they lived a hundred years ago, would never have learned to write at all, let alone being able to write, publish and have their thoughts read by hundreds or thousands – misplaced commas and all.
Yet the internet has wrought significant changes on our use of the English language – most of them neither good nor bad, merely different, as every major new technology also has its impact. In this article, we look at some of the key ways that the internet has changed the way we speak and write, both online and offline.
1. We’ve added thousands of words of new vocabulary
Looking at early internet vocabulary provides a fascinating insight into how quickly new words can be picked up and then abandoned. Many of these terms that sprung up and then disappeared less than ten years later have simply become outdated.
For instance, there’s the weird telegraphese of internet and text acronyms and abbreviations. Do you recognise or understand any of these: 4COL, AYSOS, GHM, N2MJCHBU, RAEBNC, SWIS or WACI? It’s the kind of thing that you might be pushed to write if each text costs you 30p to send, or you don’t want to take up too much space on a tiny mobile phone screen. But now you would just write it out: for crying out loud; are you stupid or something?; god help me; not too much just chilling how about you?; read and enjoyed but no comment; see what I’m saying; what a cool idea. Faced with a list of incomprehensible abbreviations like the one above, it’s easy to see why some people feared that human literacy was doomed and we were returning to a world of inarticulate pictograms. But as the technology improved and abbreviations began to impede communication rather than facilitate it, we abandoned the acronyms. TYL. (Thank you Lord – or text you later, depending on context).
The forward march of technology has pushed out other terms as well. We don’t talk about being “stuck in blue bar land”; Internet Explorer and its blue loading bar has been consigned to the dustbin of failed browser history. Similarly, being a “bandwidth hog” is no longer the problem it once was. The diversification of the internet killed off a few more words: feel the disdain of the nerd in terms like “meatspace” and “dead tree edition”, that couldn’t endure once the internet was just as likely to be used by someone’s grandma as any l33t h4xx0rz (that’s “elite hackers”, for anyone who doesn’t speak early-90s nerd slang).
Where old internet slang has fallen out of favour, new slang has appeared. If you’re reading this in 2016, you probably know most of the terms on this list: YOLO (the internet abbreviation is not completely dead!), rickrolling, basic, throwing shade, I can’t even, bae, fleek, hashtag, salty, catfish, selfie. But if it’s 2030 and this article is still online, you might want to google the concept of “rickrolling” and feel amazed at the kind of things your parents found amusing.
It’s important to remember that a lot of internet vocabulary belongs to the category of slang or jargon; it serves a particular purpose within an in-group, like professional slang. Hand-wringing articles appear when people from outside that in-group try to understand it, but that was never the purpose for which that vocabulary developed.
2. We’re getting to grips with dialects we otherwise wouldn’t have encountered
We’ve written before about how much the English language is changing, and one of the key drivers of that change is the number of people who speak English as a second, third or even fourth language. English has about 400 million native speakers, but vastly more non-native speakers – perhaps as many as two billion, depending on how loosely you want to define being an English speaker. It’s a harder question than you might realise: how fluent does someone have to be to count as an English speaker? Do they need to be able to string together a few sentences, or hold a decent conversation? Do dialects and creoles count? What if they are speaking something that is essentially English, but that very few native English speakers can understand? These questions ultimately extend beyond language, and start to raise political questions as well; the use of language by one speaker might be considered as an error, while another speaker might be considered to be using a dialect.
The internet means that English speakers of whichever background are encountering more varieties of English than they might ever have before. Take someone in Liverpool, who a hundred years ago might have heard Liverpudlian dialects and standard English, and nothing else. But online, that person today might encounter varieties of English from all across the world. Taking a look through Buzzfeed, for instance, might throw up some articles from Buzzfeed India in which you’ll encounter words like “funner”; incorrect in standard English, but fine in Indian English.
Another dialect that you might encounter online is African-American Vernacular English (usually shortened to AAVE). A lot of the internet buzzwords of 2016 derive directly from AAVE. Here’s a short list: lit (e.g. “the party is lit” – it’s great), bae (boyfriend/girlfriend etc.), woke (aware of political realities), on fleek (flawlessly styled), shade (specifically “throwing shade” – delivering a put-down, usually to someone who deserves it), squad (your friends), realness (as the word implies, being authentic), slay (to succeed in something really difficult) and basic (enjoying unsophisticated things).
Some of these words have entered if not standard English, then the slang of standard English speakers, through other forms of popular culture; for instance, Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ is in considerable part responsible for non-AAVE speakers using “slay”. But many of these words have appeared through their usage on the internet by AAVE speakers, where they have been borrowed by people who may otherwise have had no experience of AAVE. In particular, people who are effectively bilingual in AAVE and standard English might borrow AAVE vocabulary if it seems to fit their meaning better when speaking standard English. Standard English has always been inclined to borrow from other languages and dialects, and their use on the internet makes the whole process quicker and easier.
3. We’re creating brand-new dialects for online communities
For people who are not routinely on Tumblr, having a quick browse of it can be profoundly confusing. Of all online communities, Tumblr is possibly the one that has gone furthest towards having its own dialect that is incomprehensible to outsiders. There are even online guides into “how to speak Tumblr”. Here’s a Tumblr paragraph:
I CANT EVEN what is this life ruiner. having ALL THE FEELS akdfhakdghoghsgds what is air
Or in other words, the writer is extremely excited by someone. What’s fascinating about this is that none of the phrases above are borrowed from other dialects, except perhaps the keyboard smash – akdfhakdghoghsgds – but that can denote anger elsewhere, while on Tumblr it usually means wild, flailing excitement. Some of the terms might have come from pre-Tumblr online communities (especially LiveJournal) but what you can effectively see is the migration of a single online tribe, from a variety of forums to LiveJournal to Tumblr, taking their language with them and adapting it along the way.
Tumblr’s dialect is among the most distinctive, but it’s not the only online dialect. There’s the snippy, to-the-point use of language on Twitter, where users have honed the art of getting to the point in 140 characters. Reddit also has its own vocabulary, though there much of it is borrowed from previous forums, and it shows: the use of abbreviations still thrives on Reddit despite being gone from most of the rest of the internet, as its users tell each other TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), TIL (today I learned), FTFY (fixed that for you) and all the other forum-specific terms of cross-posting, upvoting, downvoting and so on and so forth.
Of course, not all of these users stick solely to one community. While there are differences of demographics (for instance, Tumblr is female-dominated, while more men use Reddit), there is considerable overlap between members of different communities, and that means that there are a good few people out there who are effectively bilingual in different online dialects: switching effortlessly from Tumblrese to Reddit-speak as required. This means that the people on Tumblr who write as if they don’t entirely understand how the shift key works and the people who Reddit who think it’s still 1996 can presumably also switch into standard English without borrowing anything from their online usage of language unless it feels appropriate. In other words, standard English ends up not damaged, but where need be, enhanced.
4. We’re learning new grammar rather than losing our ability to speak English
How do cats and dogs speak? If you ask a toddler, you’ll probably get a conventional answer along the lines of “cats go miaow, dogs go woof” or something similar. If, however, you ask an internet user, you’ll naturally know that cats (or at least lolcatz) are “in ur article and speakz lyk dis”. And you’ll know that dogs (or at least doge), as we’ve discussed before, speak “much words, very English, so article. Wow.”
The thing about writing these so that they sound ‘correct’ within the rules of the meme is that it takes a reasonably advanced knowledge of English spelling and grammar. Both are deliberately incorrect along different lines, and you can’t be deliberately incorrect unless you already know what the correct formulation is.
Lolcatz use old-school internet abbreviations and misspellings such as “ur” for “your”, replace “s” with “z” and confuse the third-person singular with the first-person singular (so “I has” not the correct “I have). Doge, on the other hand, take adjectives and adverbs and get them the wrong way around. “Much” is a measure of uncountable quantity (“too much milk”) that in writing doge is used as a measure of countable quantities (“much words”, which should correctly be “many words”).
What’s fascinating about this is that the difference between countable and uncountable nouns is a famously tricky aspect of the English language. Very few supermarket checkouts, for instance, are labelled correctly as “five items or fewer” (because the items are clearly countable, and fewer refers to countable quantities) but instead as “five items or less” (which is as incorrect as saying “much items”; it’s using an uncountable term for a countable quantity). In other words, in order to construct a doge meme, you have to understand English at a higher level than many native speakers have achieved, even if you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing.
When people are bilingual – especially when they speak the standard variation of a language and then a dialect, creole or a language that is seen as inferior – there have long been concerns that the second language or dialect needs to be suppressed, or they’ll never learn the first one properly. Much the same instinct can be seen with the concerns about what the internet is doing to the English language; what if a generation grow up able only to speak lolcat, and not to read Shakespeare?! But a couple of decades of widespread internet access have demonstrated that internet dialects operate much like any other dialect: speakers learn to switch confidently and accurately between the two, borrowing words from one to the other as seems appropriate, to the lexical enhancement of both. The internet has changed the English language considerably; long may it continue.