Chapter 12 – Evolution of Internet Language

Wikis > Chapter 12 - Evolution of Internet Language

1. Introduction

The Internet is one form of technology that has marked a cultural evolution of communication between humans. Invented early in the 1960s, it was established for the purpose of military-related data transmission from one to another network. Advancing later in the 1990s, it enabled forms of electronic mail, discussions pages and more written shared platforms that promote communication between individuals on an informal level, at a much faster rate (Crystal, 2006). Since then, this medium provided a diverse array of services and convenience given its ability to connect more than millions of people around the globe. This 21st century phenomenon has introduced new cultural notions like ‘cyberspace’ and members of the community as ‘netizens’. More significantly, the ways of communication on the internet emerge as a new language system- digitally-mediated communication which shares unique features.

These modes of communication spread at an alarming rate with the creation of different internet domains. One of it will be discussed in this chapter is the social media platform, Twitter. Such influences have brought changes to daily human communication on a global or regional basis. This is especially so for the English language, the main medium across the internet community across the world. This includes inventions in the language such as new words and slangs  that become popularised among the users on and out of the internet platform. However, it would be discussed in the subsequent section that deviations from the norm do not necessarily lead to a pejoration of the language system. Whether or not these changes continue to thrive in the language system, such as in English, would depend on persistent use and standardisation (e.g. in dictionaries) across time.

2. Emergence of digitally-mediated language


2.1 Neither speech nor writing

Internet language and digitally-mediated communication are often used interchangeably. The emergence of ‘digitally-mediated communication’ mainly differentiates itself from that of conventional speech and writing systems (Crystal, 2011). Speech is marked as one of the most efficient communication from human language evolution. The characteristics of speech often include face-to-face interaction, where extralinguistic cues such as facial expressions and prosodies are made available to aid conveyance and receive meaning. Communication is usually based on references to the objects in the environment, enabling expressions to be more ambiguous. For instance, an object or person does not need to be named and can be understood with the deictic use of ‘that’ to denote a commonly understood topic or object. While speech usually happens in real time with constant feedback, words that are spoken fades away immediately before utterance is made. Furthermore, the intended meaning of messages may not be conveyed accurately to the other speaker.

In contrast, written forms appear in the concrete form, appearing since the early pictographic carvings on clay tablets to the latest use of ink on animal skins and paper (Early Writing, n.d.). Communicators can reanalyse and reread using these mediums to aid comprehension. Written words require precision and the writing medium enables messages to be copied or preserved for future references. Hence it allows ideas to be passed down to different generations. On the other hand, communication and sharing of ideas takes time to deliver from person to person; inputs and outputs does not allow immediate feedback and inaccurate communication cannot be rectified on-the-spot. One example can be letter writing (Carysforth, 1998).

While digitally-mediated language does encompass selective characteristics from both language systems, it has emerged with unique characteristics in communication (Crystal, 2011). Unlike the characteristics of speech mentioned above, the nature of internet language lacks a reliance on visual feedback between communicators. Instead it uses emoticons or graphics to supporting texts, and can allow users to simultaneously be available to multiple separate conversations with different individuals at a time. On the other hand, writing in the digital environment may be subjected to time and space limitations where pages may expire or be replaced (such as wikipedia), or be confined; in fact they lack a universalised, coherent standard of writing due to inputs and outputs from diverse backgrounds. Internet language features should not be perceived as fixed. Rather they are adapted based on the different dynamics of the digital environment (Crystal, 2011). It is first important to consider the variety of domains available in the digital environment to understand and garner the features of internet language.

2.2 Domains and features of internet language

Since the 1990s, the internet has opened many modes of communication. Crystal (2001) stratified the internet platform into different domains. These include email, chat groups, virtual world and the World, Wide Web. Within the next few years, the use of language broadened within the internet medium, with the addition of postponed time mediums (e.g. forums), blogging and instant messaging. In each domain, different language features can be classified and are commonly observed to fall within the continuum of writing and speaking. 

Herring (2008) proposed to identify internet language through its features. They are classified under two main aspects; the former describes the dimensions of language influenced by the technological platform. Some of it includes whether or not communication takes place in the real time (synchronicity), if language requires a reciprocal response (one or two-way participation), whether the speaker’s identity can be anonymous (speaker identification), if a conversation is public or private, which affects the stylistic use (the type of audience), and lastly, if there is a required presentation or structure for communication to take place.

The latter aspects describes the social conventions or rules that influence language use. Some of these features include the active or passive nature of participation, the demographics of the internet users, the social functions where communication occurs (e.g. playing a game, advertising, commenting), appropriateness of topics, atmosphere of the digital environment (e.g. indifference, aggressive), and finally the existence of rules that regulates online or language behavior (e.g. use of abbreviations, jokes, types of fonts etc); all of these contribute to a picture of how language is being constructed (Crystal, 2011). Applying these aspects onto the different domains helps to establish language features and variations on the internet platform.

Video: Example of features in instant message: synchronicity of communication and multiple conversation at a time (Synaptus, 2012)

Figure 1. Example of features in email: structure or presentation necessary in email communication (BBC, 2012)

2.3 Oral language in the written form

Due to the predominance of writing, many have thus labelled the digital culture as ‘oral culture appearing in the written form’ (Crystal, 2011). In terms of language composition, this means that one does not approach the writing process with ‘silent language in our heads to writing’ expressing thoughts through the act of writing. Instead it is proposed that digitally-mediated language is composed in a different process. Communication is initiated by thoughts, then translated into how one would deliver it in speech before the message is expressed into writing. Hence, the act of speech does not necessarily need to be spoken aloud and can occur in the literary form (prints) now. As what Gee and Hayes (2011) added, the extent of composing text can mirror speech where one may ‘speak’ impulsively or types off “without much forethought”.

The result of these literary forms can vary greatly in its content and formality as compared to the traditional ways of writing (Gee, 2011). The communication tends to emphasise less on content or facts and more for the purpose of socialisation. Scholars have since provided three terms that closely described the relationship of written forms with the spoken language; first is ‘conceptual orality’. Texts may often be written like direct transcripts of how one would speak. Next is the use of ‘semiotic compensation’. This means that the written forms may contain the use of symbols to create expressions and playing of words. They replicate sounds one would respond with during communication with oral language such as the smiley face, or laughing sounds “ha ha”. Lastly is ‘linguistic economy’, where internet users tend to write in shorter and less-elaborated forms. This is especially so when digital communication takes place at real-time, which allows immediate responses like that in speech. Generally, language on the internet is also informal (Androutsopoulos, 2011). One example from the internet domain is instant messaging. Digitally-mediated language can thus be characterised as speech-like, written forms of communication.

3. Spread of Internet Language: Cultural Transmission

Nordquist (2016) defines cultural transmission in linguistics as “the process whereby a language is passed on from one generation to the next in a community”. A linguist listed three primary forms of cultural transmission, horizontal, vertical, and oblique transmission. Horizontal transmission refers to communications among individuals of the same generation. Vertical transmission refers to in which a member of one generation talks to a biologically-related member of a later generation. Lastly, oblique transmission refers to in which any member of one generation talks to any non-biologically-related member of a later generation. In internet language specifically, it can be seen as a form of horizontal transmission because the internet only existed recently (from the 1960s till now) and most of its users are of the same generation. Popular online platforms for user interactions such as the social media and forums hence facilitates information transmission and language change.

3.1 Transmission of Internet Language

The Senior Editor of Oxford English Dictionary explained that for a new word to enter the dictionary lexicon, it must be frequently used in the last five years (The Evolution of Language: How Internet Slang Changes the Way We Speak, 2014). Although words spread quickly on platforms like Twitter, it is safe to say that it has not entirely infiltrated daily speech as of now, as the internet has only been around for about two decades (Kthxbai! How Internet-speak Is Changing The Way We Talk IRL, 2013).

3.1.1 Transmission of Internet Language: Memes

Increasingly, memes (pronounced as ‘meems’) have been seen on the internet, that has been brought over to day to day speech. As defined by Knobel and Lankshear (2006), memes are “contagious patterns of “cultural information” that get passed from mind to mind and directly generate and shape the mindsets and significant forms of behavior and actions of a social group”. They can stem from popular media, personalities, or events that has happened in the world. For instance, ‘salt bae’ was a nickname given to a Turkish chef that has garnered over 2 million responses after posting a video of himself sprinkling salt on a piece of meat in an unusual way (Know Your Meme, 2017). Interestingly, this is a blending of the original meme ‘bae’ which means a term for girlfriend or boyfriend, or an acronym for ‘before anyone else’ (Urban Dictionary, 2014) and ‘salt’ as seen in the video of the chef. Memes such as these are used widely on the internet, and can spread to real life conversations.

Memes tend to have a shorter lifespan than most internet slangs as they are event specific and iconic on its own, with other examples such as ‘eyebrows on fleek’ (Eyebrows on Fleek, 2015) and ‘cash me ousside how bow dah’ (Cash Me Ousside / Howbow Dah, 2017). Such usage do not go into the dictionary due to the infrequency of use over a prolonged period, however exceptions such as ‘rick roll’ that is still in use even after a decade proved that memes can be continually used for a long period of time (Bryan, 2017). Further will be discussed in the internet slangs section.

3.2 Case study: Twitter

One of the ways the internet language has spread is through a popular social media platform called Twitter. The reason why Twitter is used as a case study is because of its unique 140 words only posts (Crystal, 2011). This pushes the limits for users as they must concise a message or a thought into 140 words, resulting in new acronyms, expressions or even slangs. As a result, words spread faster than ever due to the nature of the platform – being available to anyone in the world with access to internet. Eisenstein, O’Connor, Smith & Xing (2014) did a study on a corpus of Twitter messages in the United States to analyse the patterns of words on the platform. An interesting finding was that African American populations were the trend leaders in most of the patterns found. Another significant finding was that a city which is more affluent and lower in mean age is more likely to lead the linguistic change than the opposite. The paper noted that an affluent city does not equates to an affluent individual, as it posited earlier that language change usually originates from the working class (Eisenstein et al., 2014).


Figure 2. Change in frequency for six words: ion, -__-, ctfu, af, ikr, ard. Blue circles indicate cities where on average, at least 0.1% of users use the word during a week. A circle’s area is proportional to the word’s probability. (Eisenstein et al., 2014)

Figure 2 shows the change in frequency of words that was in Eisenstein et al. paper. It shows how a word spreads within the stated time frames. This illustrates the speed at which a word spreads throughout the neighbouring regions over time. This is how horizontal transmission works as individuals communicate online.

In an online article by Sonnad (2015), ‘bruh’, ‘rekt’, ‘tfw’ and others were identified in an interactive study analysed by Grieve and Guo. Likewise in Figure 2, the website shows a progressive spread of the identified word on Twitter. They examined the Twitter corpus and some words that were emerging in the internet. Indeed, Twitter is one of the databases where linguists can track language change on the internet, however there are also disadvantages such as repetitive tweets due to retweets (quoting of another user’s tweet), private accounts and so on, resulting in repetitive and missed data.


4. Effect of internet on English language

There has been a lot of debate over whether the internet is ruining the English language or just merely changing it. There were predictions from the past that in the near future, everyone was going to communicate with just acronyms or ‘emojis’. The internet has indeed resulted in a significant change on our use of the English language, and these changes are not random and without rules.

4.1 New vocabulary

Looking at the internet vocabulary in the past decade shows how quickly new words have appeared, spreaded and then abandoned. Many words or acronyms that were once popular have become totally obsolete. In the past, people were limited by the word count in a text message because the next extra word will cost the use of another text message. In order to avoid the extra cost due to exceeding the word count by just one or two letters, acronyms like TYL, 4COL, GHM were used. However, with free messaging applications like Whatsapp and Telegram, one would not need to be restricted by such acronyms. Looking at the incomprehensible list above, it is understandable why people fear that human language was doomed and literacy level would be fall However, as technology continues to improve, these abbreviations started to impede our communication instead of facilitating it, and hence these acronyms were abandoned.

As old internet slang dies, new internet slang has appeared. The current internet slang includes YOLO, basic, bae, on fleek, selfie. It is hard to say how long will these slangs will remain, as they generally have short lifespan as mentioned above. Below is a timeline of internet slangs and the year they got popular.

Figure 3: Timeline of different acronyms in history of Internet Language

4.1.1 Examples of the emergence of new words online

In 2011, the acronym ‘YOLO’ which stands for ‘You Only Live Once’ was widely spread. YOLO became popular because of the song “The Motto” by Drake (YOLO (aphorism), 2017). This is one of the common ways in which new words are added to the internet vocabulary, especially because of the large influencing power that artistes have on people in this modern age. In 2015, the phrase ‘on fleek’ was popularised by the vine user, Peaches Monroee. This phrase is used to refer to something that was “on point” or “nice” (or perfect).

The latest trending word ‘woke’ only started getting popular on the internet in 2016 last year. All along the years, the phrase being ‘woke’ was predominantly used by the blacks on social media. However, it has recently been picked up by the white community of speakers as well. (Pulliam-Moore, 2016) ‘Woke’ was initially used to refer to being aware; knowing what is going on in the community. It was originally meant to advocate critical thinking about societal issues but have now become a phrase that comes across as condemning and making fun of that very idea. This evolution of the word ‘woke’ is very much cultural dependent. Many other words and phrases that were added into the internet vocabulary have undergone similar processes. The original meaning of these words are being twisted and shaped into creating a new meaning on the internet.

4.2 Internet slang

Another cause of worry of the negative impacts that the internet has on the English language is due to the rise of new internet slangs. For English speakers, there are even websites that are devoted to online dialects (Kleinman, 2010). Two such examples are the slang of “LOLcat” and “doge”. “LOLcat” is a phonetic and deliberately grammatically incorrect ‘language’ that appears with a picture of a cat. “Doge” similarly involves grammatically incorrect phrases that appear with a certain picture of this dog. These two slangs are using the English language in a way that is obviously “wrong”.

In order to be able to write in either one of these two slangs so that they sound “correct” within the rules of the meme is that it takes a reasonably advanced knowledge of the English spelling and grammar. Both of the examples above are deliberately incorrect along different lines and it is impossible to construct the phrase unless the speaker already understands what the correct formulation of the language is. The creation as well as the use of these new slangs will therefore not lead to a degeneration of the English language, despite the ungrammatical sentences. Instead, it proves the ability of the human cognitive abilities to be able to come up with such slangs.

4.3 Survival

As mentioned before, some words have continued to survive in the internet vocabulary since its appearance while some have already become totally obsolete.

One way that might signal the survival of a certain word is its entrance into dictionaries. The internet vocabulary has entered the dictionary lexicon over the years since the internet first emerged. Each year, the Oxford English Dictionary is updated 4 times, March, June, September and December (Recent updates to the OED, n.d.). During the most recent updates of September and December 2016, there were about 500 new updates which included words like “YouTuber” and “YOLO”. This shows that the internet vocabulary is constantly being updated and being normalised in the formal dictionaries, proving its longevity.  That being said, this does not prove the survival of the words in the long run. Evidence has shown that contrary to population, many of these internet vocabulary are not used in daily communication as frequently as expected. If there is no persistence in usage even after it has entered the dictionary lexicon, then words like “YouTuber” and “YOLO” may still become extinct (Androutsopoulos, 2011).

5. Conclusion

It has been discussed that internet language, or digitally-mediated language has emerged as a unique language system. The expansion of different internet domains enable communication to take place in increasingly innovative ways. It is observed that this language system is governed by a set of features described and influenced by the aspects of digital technology and the social conventions of human interaction. Digital language is transmitted dominantly through a characterised form of writing that reflects speech. Next, digital language is another form of cultural transmission where horizontal transmission of language takes place. In addition, internet language is spread through various social media platforms such as Twitter, and enters the dictionary lexicon through prolonged usage. Memes are also another way of viral language spread, as can be seen and used widely on the internet. Lastly, the internet has also changed the English language as well as the survival of the internet language. In conclusion, the internet language is an ongoing process that changes daily. The language that is used now on the internet may be non-existent in a decade to come. With the fast moving pace of language change, the challenge for linguists is to adapt to the ever changing landscape of the linguistic environment on the internet as well as the daily language people use.

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