Technology Will Change Language Whether We Like It Or Not

In her new book ‘Because Internet,’ Gretchen McCulloch explains the incredible changes that have been happening to language online.
A group of young people looking at their phones and hanging out

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that my writing style has changed. Not in “formal” writing, where I still hew to all of the standard writing rules (or at least, my editors try to make sure that I do. Thanks editors!). But where I once sent text messages and posted Facebook statuses with every piece of punctuation in place, now I can hardly be bothered to capitalize words at the beginning of sentences.

There are two possibilities as to why this is happening. My brain could be infested by grammar-eating worms, forcing me to forget all of the important English lessons I learned in school. Or, perhaps more likely, the rules of informal writing are rapidly changing. Why? Linguist Gretchen McCulloch answers that question with the title of her newest book: Because Internet.

Through her Twitter feed and Lingthusiasm podcast, McCulloch has been a proponent of studying internet language for a while now. And for fans of that work, this book delivers an even deeper dive. Not only does each page have some interesting tidbit that you’ll want to read aloud to whoever’s closest to you, but also McCulloch creates a whole history of language on the internet. It’s this part — taking the internet, a topic that can seem ephemeral, and contextualizing it within the history of human communication — that makes the book so invaluable to anyone interested in language.

How Important Is Internet Language?

Internet language is often written off as an unfortunate fad, usually by the same curmudgeons who think any language change is bad. We won’t go into the many editorials about millennials killing the English language, but there are so very many out there. It is true that there are linguistic fads on the internet; leetspeak, a way of writing associated with the early internet that involved a lot of replacing certain letters with numbers (it’s also called 1337 SP34K), is now only used sarcastically or to hark back to an earlier time. But these fads are part of a larger trend that is changing the way we communicate.

Saying something is “changing the way we communicate” can sound like a sweeping declaration, but really it’s not. McCulloch proves this by taking a step backward to a different technology that changed the way we communicate: the telephone. It made it so that people needed to learn how to talk to someone who is not within their immediate vicinity. An example of this is that the word “hello” started to be used as a greeting because of the phone, which can be surprising considering its current ubiquity. If the phone can change that, then the internet — which has changed the way we exist in the world — can have a lasting legacy on the English language.

Why Is Internet Language A Thing?

While there are a lot of topics covered in Because Internet, the main thrust behind it all is that the internet is causing a rapid shift in informal language because people are trying to find the best way to communicate. Now that people are spending more time than ever typing to each other, it’s important that the language changes to suit our needs. 

One of the main needs in communication is conveying emotion, which can be difficult in written language. But through trial and error, the internet is finding ways to fill the need. A chapter on typographical tone of voice points out how periods, for example, have taken on a new meaning (every young person who texts regularly knows “Ok.” is much scarier than “Ok!”). There’s also the rise of emoji, which has allowed people to use symbols to show emotion rather than hoping that the meaning shines through the text.

Some of the changes to language have nothing to do with needs and instead are byproducts of the technologies themselves. One such example is spell check, which now automatically adjusts spellings in words. This can seem like a neutral good — what’s wrong with fixing spellings? — but it can, in little ways, show the bias of the technology’s creator. Whether or not your name gets read as “correct” or not, for example, depends on whether the spell check has the name in its dictionary (and if you don’t have a European-sounding name, that’s unlikely). As McCulloch puts it, spell check is “a case of bias-laundering through technology that serves to reinforce people and names that are already powerful.”

Beyond this, there are a million tiny things on the internet that shape language. How many characters Twitter allows you to type, whether a website allows diacritics over letters and what languages Google Translate currently offers all create stark limitations to the free-flow of words and information. Taken alone, these sound benign, but realizing where the lines are drawn on what you can and can’t type is revealing of how much control technology companies have over us.

Internet Language Is The Future (Long Live Memes!)

The internet is a writhing mass of words that is both seemingly infinite and constantly growing. Trying to do any comprehensive study is a bit like herding LOLcats. And worst of all, writing about current memes in a book is a sure way to make a book seem ancient shortly after it’s published (if not on the day of publishing itself, which is usually at least a year after the book is written). But the internet is also such an important resource because it provides the largest corpus of searchable human language ever created.

Because Internet escapes many of the curses of writing about the internet. While it does cover memes and current trends in internet language, it presents them with the full knowledge that these may be gone in a few months or years. What’s most important is understanding what is behind the trends, and what they say about language more generally. Whether talking in person or writing across thousands of miles, people are always trying to find the best way to contort our imperfect language into real human connection.

Meme in a new language!
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