Decade In Review: Language Trends That Shaped The 2010s

We explored the memes, movements and emoji that defined a decade.
December 20, 2019
Decade In Review: Language Trends That Shaped The 2010s

A lot of reviews of the past 10 years we’ve read are about how people have become angrier and more partisan than ever. Looking at language trends tells a slightly different story. Times are tough, but we’ve never had more tools at our disposal to communicate with people who live across the globe from us. If we get on the right path, language in the 2020s could bring the planet together and help us solve the greatest problems facing us today.

In the 2010s, people stopped thinking of language as an unchanging monolith. Language is constantly transforming, and trying to capture it at any point in time is like trying to catch the wind with a butterfly net. We tried to do it anyway. We picked some of the trends that have influenced language in some way — the way we communicate, the languages we interact with, the words that define these years — and explored what exactly happened with each of them.

EMOJI: Emoji Broke The Internet
TECH: Language Technology Made Our Lives Easier
INCLUSION: Language Got More Inclusive
MEMES: Language Evolved At The Speed Of Meme
BRANDS: Brands Brought Silicon Valley Into Our Vocabulary
MEDIA: Media Got More Multilingual
Words of the Decade

Emoji Header language trends

Emoji Broke The Internet

The very first emoji were released in 1997 by the Japanese company J-Phone (now SoftBank), followed up by the set designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, which is considered to be the ones that set off emoji fever. But it wasn’t until the 2010s that they took over the whole world. Emoji aren’t a language in and of themselves, but they’ve reshaped the way people communicate. Here’s a timeline for how emoji went from quirky addition to a text to ever-present cultural force.

Some of the emoji not appearing? You probably don’t have the latest version of Unicode! Updating your computer or mobile device will fix that, or you can just use your imagination.

👶 2010 — While emoji had been around for over a decade, 2010 is when they were officially adopted by the Unicode Consortium, meaning that they were standardized across devices (which is why an Android and iPhone show emoji that look different but maintain the same sentiment). The number of emoji exploded, going from 139 to over 1,000.

🍎 2011 — Emoji are added to iMessage, putting what was once a pretty niche concept into the hands of millions of people around the world.

👨‍❤️‍👨 2012 — Apple adds same-sex couples to its emoji, the first of many moves improving diversity. Capturing the entire human experience in a few thousand symbols proves difficult.

📕 2013 — The word “emoji” is added to Oxford Dictionaries. Google starts supporting emoji on Android devices, and Emojipedia — an encyclopedia for emoji — launches.

📅 2014 — The very first World Emoji Day is unofficially celebrated on July 17, chosen because July 17 is the date on the calendar emoji itself. Why that day? Apple designed the emoji calendar with July 17 because iCal launched on July 17, 2002. Android and other companies followed suit when designing their own emoji.

😂 2015 — Oxford Dictionaries chooses 😂 (the most popular emoji) as its word of the year, rankling pedants and marking the height of emoji hysteria. Also this year, skin tones (👩🏻👩🏼👩🏽👩🏾👩🏿) are added to emoji for the first time, and Instagram banned the eggplant 🍆 in hashtags because of its horny connotations.

🔫 2016 — Apple changed its pistol emoji to a water pistol in order to remove violent connotations. Relatedly, the first job listing for an emoji translator was listed by Today Translations for a court case; this job field has been growing since because emoji are increasingly showing up in criminal evidence.

🎥 2017 — The Emoji Movie is released into the world, though it was reviled by many as a cheap ploy to target app marketing at children. Despite a 7 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, it made over $200 million. So look for a sequel soon, probably.

🥯 2018 — After Apple reveals its design for the new bagel emoji, people on the internet erupt into anger because it doesn’t look appetizing enough. Apple capitulates and revealed a new design, cream cheese included. This isn’t the first time people complained until there was a change: people made fun of Google in 2017 because the toppings of its burger emoji weren’t in the right order.

👨🏻 2019 — Offering over 3,000 emoji isn’t good enough, so Apple launches Memoji, an extension of its existing Animoji. Memoji allows people to make custom emoji that express a greater range of emotion. This innovation, like many emoji-related creations, tries to fill the gap between what people want and what is available to them. Memoji haven’t quite caught on yet, so maybe people prefer the static options given them.

Is there a future for emoji, or have they already peaked? It’s hard to say. But emoji scholar Marcel Danesi believes no matter what, emoji has changed how we communicate: “As technology changes, as we communicate differently, emoji may disappear. But the idea of visualization, of fusing the moods into the writing system, is not going to go away.”  

Thomas Moore Devlin

Tech Header language trends

Language Technology Made Our Lives Easier

We don’t yet understand how radical of a change the transition into a society built on data has been. The big tech companies know more about us than our families; our daily behavior is more valuable than gold; and artificial intelligence is smarter than we perhaps want to believe. And even if few of us believe that we’ll wake up one morning and find ourselves in the middle of Terminator 2, there’s no doubt that AI and machine learning have changed our lives a lot in the past decade.

Translation

The development has been particularly rapid in the area of natural language processing. While computers have been taught to perform an astounding range of tasks, natural language has historically been very difficult. The development of “deep learning,” a new kind of machine learning where computers are able to learn from the information they receive, has changed that.

When deep learning models were applied to Google’s machine translation some years back, the translation quality increased immensely. In the process, the model is fed huge amounts of text data and learns to find patterns and produce an output based on those patterns, hence translating more accurately than the older rule-based or statistical models. Even though it’s far from perfect (and it notoriously reproduces human biases), the ability for Google Translate and related services to translate almost any website is a huge breakthrough. Already, it can help people—especially language learners—find and understand pages in languages other than their native one on the internet.

Voice Recognition

Whereas getting a robot to understand you 10 years ago was extraordinarily frustrating, years of research in voice recognition and conversational bots has given us devices that we can talk to, whether we’re asking them to turn off the lights, play a song or tell us the weather. These devices are somewhat limited in what they’re able to understand and respond to — we’re still not having actual conversations with robots — but it’s a massive leap forward.

Voice recognition has also proven a useful language-learning tool. As a non-native speaker, you’re able to use conversational interfaces to practice, since Alexa, Google Home, and the rest are trained to understand different accents in a bunch of languages. Recently, a code-switching sensitive voice assistant for bilingual homes was introduced, and there are plans to make the devices even more multilingual in the future.

Spell Check, Grammar Check, Tone Check And More

Spell checkers have undergone a small revolution, and continue to offer lots of support to native speakers and language learners alike. The grammar checker Grammarly was developed by people who speak English as a second language, and the service continues to be cherished by ESL speakers (myself included). Predictive text and writing suggestions as seen in Gmail’s Smart compose, can help non-native speakers get a grasp of correct syntax, as well as pragmatic factors: what to say and how to behave in your second language.

Sentiment and tone analysis help language learners and native speakers alike to check if a text comes off as neutral or negative, polite or confident. And not only can speech recognition systems now give feedback on pronunciation, but also dictate functions on our phones have made it increasingly easy to go about your day without writing a single word. Someday soon, spelling and grammatical errors may be a thing of the past.

Machine Translation And Its Limitations

Language technology has done a lot for us lately. The fact that you can now pick up your phone, speak a sentence in English, and hear the same sentence back in Spanish seems like something coming out of a caffeine-fuelled, crazy-moonshot-ideas, no-judgment-during-brainstorming meeting at a tech startup 20 years ago. Or what about taking a photo of a sign in Chinese and receiving a (somewhat accurate) translation in English? Is this Star Trek?

Jokes aside: If we can talk to anyone using translation services on our phones, why would we go out of our way to learn new languages? 

Well, that question is missing the point of interhuman communication, and also missing the point of, shall we say, cerebral challenges. The sense of pride when you produce your first sentence, the joy of understanding a joke for the first time, the relief when you finally step away from “translating in your brain” before speaking — language technology won’t replace any of that.

The more important question is probably: Does technology help humans connect better with each other? Can it bridge gaps and create more understanding? Or will we be increasingly alone together, communicating only through our screens? 

Maybe we’ll find out in the next decade.

Elin Asklöv

Inclusion Header language trends

Language Got More Inclusive

A particularly powerful way language changed over the course of the last decade was in the prevalence and normalization of more inclusive terminology. As cultural attitudes about how we treat folks who are different from us shifted, the language we use to talk about them adapted as well. This embrace of inclusive language manifested in various ways across various languages in recent years. There are four (of the many) inclusivity trends that caught our attention.

1. Singular “They”

Perhaps the most ubiquitous inclusive word to pop up recently was the singular “they.” Strictly forbidden by traditionalist English teachers in favor of the clunky “he or she,” this word came to the forefront in the late 2010s as a gender-neutral or non-binary pronoun alternative. “They” (or “them”/“their”) can be used for a person whose gender is unknown (“Who did this? They’ll regret it”) or for a person who identifies as gender non-binary (“Sam ate their lunch at their desk”).

Surprisingly, it’s not actually new to the English language. Early use of the singular “they” can be traced back to the 1300s, when it appeared in a medieval romance story. But in the eighteenth century, grammarians decided it was incorrect and shouldn’t be used in a singular form. This decision held through the centuries.

In recent years, public opinion has gradually shifted on this long-standing grammatical no-no. In 2017, the Associated Press updated its style guide to allow journalists to use the singular “they” in certain circumstances. Merriam-Webster added the usage of “they” as a singular, non-binary pronoun to its dictionary in September 2019. In fact, Merriam-Webster went on to make the singular “they” its 2019 Word of the Year, due to the word’s 313 percent increase in lookups over the previous year.

2. The Spread Of “Y’all”

Another term that has been adapted for inclusivity reasons in recent years is “y’all.” Typically used by Southerners as “you all” with a drawl and popularized in large part by African American Vernacular English, “y’all” has recently spread to other parts of the country to provide a more inclusive alternative to the gendered “you guys,” which is particularly prevalent in the northern and western regions of the United States.

Figuring out how to refer to groups of people can be a challenge for English speakers because the language lacks a definitive second-person plural pronoun. Options tend to vary by region, ranging from “yinz” in the Ozarks and Appalachians to “you lot” in the United Kingdom and Australia. But the use of “y’all” has particularly risen sharply over the course of the decade, and it is probably the most popular gender-neutral option.

3. The Rise Of “Latinx”

This one is a little more controversial. Using “Latinx” instead of “Latino” as a catch-all term for Latin Americans is a recent movement, particularly by LGBTQ+ people, to be more inclusive and gender-neutral when referring to people of Latin descent. With languages like Spanish that are inherently gendered, however, developing inclusive language isn’t so simple.

“Latinx”’s rise since it first appeared online in 2004 has been fairly dramatic, but so has the backlash against it. Though it’s not clear exactly where “Latinx” originated, critics say the term was invented by Americans, and one editorial went so far as to call it “linguistic imperialism.” For those who identify as “Latinx,” however, the word gives a sense of belonging.

4. Pronouns In Other Languages

We mentioned above how gendered languages can make the inclusivity problem more complex, but that hasn’t stopped other countries and their linguists from introducing new gender-neutral pronouns.

Some languages, including Turkish and certain indigenous languages of the Americas, already have these terms built into them. But for those that don’t, people have to innovate. While languages like Italian and Portuguese are struggling to figure out a way to make gender-neutral pronouns work, other languages have introduced them and they’re starting to catch on.

One relatively successful case study is the Swedish hen. Like English, Swedish has gendered pronouns: han (he) or hon (she), but there wasn’t a non-binary option. Hen was thought to be coined by a linguist in the 1960s who saw this gap in the Swedish language. It was popularized by a children’s book in 2012. Though the debate over whether it’s necessary or “right” rages on, the use of hen has become pretty mainstream across the country.

Other gender-neutral pronouns that are starting to gain traction are the German sie or sier, the French ille/iel, the Russian oni and the Spanish elle. This type of inclusive language has a long way to go before it’s widely accepted, but the 2010s certainly saw a surge of progress in this area.

Dylan Lyons

Memes Header

Language Evolved At The Speed Of Meme

Let’s be clear on one thing: memes are not a strictly 2010s thing. They’re not even a strictly internet thing. The word “meme” actually originated in 1976, coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Adopted from the Greek mimēma (“that which is imitated”), the word “meme” describes the way cultural symbols, ideas and behaviors are passed from person to person through a process of repetition and gradual evolution — just like biological genes.

Before we had Twitter to teach us new speech mannerisms, we had the snail mail equivalent of “organically existing in the world.” You picked up the code of your peers by spending the majority of your time with them in school, and through all kinds of incidental contact with the outside world, the language of your in-group gradually became the language of your outgroup. It’s kind of like an ongoing game of cultural telephone, except the naturally occurring distortions had much grander implications for things like regional dialects and inflections.

That process is still occurring all the time, except we’re in the age of Internet 2.0, and here, memes can behave more like viruses than genes. In the late ’00s, this process was accelerating. In the 2010s, it took off at the speed of like, retweet and share.

Not only can the world now laugh at the same inside jokes in unison, but new words and linguistic quirks blow up instantaneously on a global scale. It’s now more or less accepted that most memes will live (or be funny) for the lifespan of a house fly — which is sometimes how long it takes for a mainstream publication or corporate brand to acknowledge or co-opt the joke.

The speed at which new words are being added to the dictionary is also rapidly increasing. In the past, dictionary editors would generally try to observe the 10-year rule when it came to determining which new words were meaningful enough to legitimize like that. Now, a word that pops up on Twitter can make it into the Oxford English Dictionary in a handful of years.

But perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that internet memes — you know, the joke kind — have broken the fourth wall by infiltrating our IRL (“in real life”) speech and occasionally creating their own mini linguistic universes.

One of the best examples of this is doge speak. The bemused-looking shiba inu hardly needs an introduction at this point, but part of the joke is that the dog is usually surrounded by short snippets of its own internal monologue, which are usually riddled with intentional misspellings and grammatical “errors.” Very wow. Much excite. Doin’ a bork (read: “bark”). Far from being haphazard, though, this “dialect” has an entire grammar unto its own. As linguist Gretchen McCulloch points out, doge speak is singular enough that you can recognize it when it’s not paired with a picture of a shiba inu, and even when it arises spontaneously in everyday speech. The fact that it now often does arise in everyday speech is a testament to how thoroughly these memes have saturated our culture.

But that’s not just a product of how funny they are. It also indicates that a quick meme reference can serve as shorthand for a more complicated concept — one that said meme often effectively satirizes.

You can TyPe LiKe ThIs OnLiNe Or In A TeXt and people will know that you’re referencing the mocking SpongeBob meme, which means you should read the statement in a mocking tone and that you do not, in fact, endorse this point of view. You can hold your hand up in front of you like there’s an imaginary butterfly hovering above you and say “Is this…culture?” to invoke the “is this a pigeon” meme. In three words, you have conveyed that you are making fun of people who are so out of the loop that they’re like clueless anthropologists trying to figure out what’s cool these days. Recently, someone I know tried to explain the “galaxy brain” meme to their therapist because they were trying to relate to this notion of increasingly “enlightened” thinking where the most elevated take is often ironically simple or dumb.

In the span of 10 years, we’ve managed to let the entire world in on the joke — and when we reference the humor, we’re also referencing a shared understanding of something bigger.

Steph Koyfman

Brands Header

Brands Brought Silicon Valley Into Our Vocabulary

If your friend turned to you in 2010 and said, “Venmo me for the Uber,” you’d more than likely stare blankly back, unsure what to make of more than half of the syllables that spilled from their mouth. Sure, in 2019 you might toss these words around casually without a second thought, but these terms didn’t mean much at all (or anything, for that matter) only ten short years ago. 

It’s not entirely strange for products to appear in language and thus become a “generic trademark”: Zipper, ChapStick and Velcro all started out as brand names. But it’s only become more prevalent over time, and the fact is that so much of the language we use today has been promulgated and popularized by the arrival of new technology startups and brands to the global scene. These are the “apps of convenience” that arose out of the Silicon Valley mindset of streamlining certain everyday experiences to make life that much easier than it already was. 

Whether it’s online dating that fits in your pocket or instant transactions you can send with the tap of a finger, countless new brands have capitalized on the rise of the smartphone to claim a space in the modern technological environment. And because language is ever-evolving, our vocabularies have made room for many new expressions.

Here’s a look at some words that entered our collective lexicons earlier this decade because of tech brands.

“Venmo”

Paying someone through the internet has never been easier with the rise of mobile payment apps. Sure, companies like Paypal have existed for more than a decade, but Venmo and other similar young apps have made wiring money at the touch of a button nearly effortless.

Over the past few years, the name “Venmo” has become a verb in and of itself. Friends can Venmo each other after a brunch where one person foots the bill, or one can Venmo her roommate her share of the rent and utilities bill every month. With so much money swirling electronically around us at any given time, it’s no wonder that fast transaction apps have caught on so quickly — and that our language has followed suit. 

“Uber”

Uber is often making the news, and not usually for the best reasons. Though the company has gotten a lot of flak for its internal bureaucratic hiccups and its treatment of its contracted labor, Uber’s ubiquity and brand recognition remain strong to this today and are arguably only growing. In the past few years, the word “Uber” has become an indispensable item in the lexicon of so many people around the world.

Though other apps like Lyft compete heavily with Uber in the ride-share market, many people would agree that “Ubering” has become synonymous with ride-sharing from an app in general; you might “Uber to the airport” or “take an Uber to the party,” expressions which would be essentially meaningless 10 years ago. You can now even “Uber Copter” (though, for many reasons, we don’t expect that one to catch on quite as quickly among the masses).

“Swiping right” (Tinder/Bumble)

Online dating has been around for a while, but never has it been so mobile, portable and efficient. It’s also become a lot more socially acceptable to talk about: no one bats an eye anymore when someone mentions they met their spouse online. Perhaps brands like Tinder and Bumble have ruined romance by reducing it to a screen, but it doesn’t look like dating apps are going anywhere soon.

“Swiping” is a concept that arises out of these apps’ requirement that choosing a significant other be a more binary process; they work by requiring you to make a simple yes-or-no decision about the potential partner on your screen before you can see the next. And so, to “swipe right” on something is to want to “match” with it, to give it your approval. And by extension, its counterpart, “swiping left” is to dismiss it entirely as not worth your time or attention. 

Airbnb”

Nowadays you might not think twice about “booking an Airbnb” or even “Airbnb-ing” your place for the weekend when you’re not using it. But back at the turn of the decade, there wasn’t such a term to describe finding or renting out a home as a unique holiday getaway.

Booking accommodation for your vacation likely involved browsing a lot of hotel websites, making phone calls to local bed-and-breakfasts, or trying your luck on nomad-friendly sites like CouchSurfing. That’s not to say that those aren’t all viable options today, but Airbnb has changed the way many people view vacationing — and how they talk about it, too.

“Instagram”

If you heard this word before 2010, you might try to decipher its meaning by parsing it into distinct parts. “Insta” — is that like “instant”? And could “gram” be related to “graph”? Turns out, you wouldn’t be far off in this assumption; the name is a portmanteau of “instant camera” and “telegram.” But in 2019, “Instagram” means so much more!

To “Instagram” is to take part in the photo-sharing social network that has changed the internet; from humble beginnings in 2010, the app has skyrocketed in popularity to have more than 1 billion users within roughly the past year. Popular celebrities meticulously curate their Instagram profiles for their tens of millions of followers, and a global cohort of Instagram “influencers” has made a living advertising products in their photos and on their profiles. 

You can use “Instagram” to describe the action of posting to Instagram or to refer to the post itself. If someone takes a particularly cute selfie, she might Instagram it so her followers can see (and offer her the social validation that comes with it, of course). Someone else might “like” an Instagram of his crush to let her know he’s thinking of her. And you might have a “finsta,” or a “fake Instagram,” where you post content you don’t want the whole world to see. There’s no wrong way to Instagram; making it an online extension of your personality is part of the fun.

David Doochin

Media Header

Media Got More Multilingual

The English language has, for a long time, played an outsized role in the world’s media. Hollywood has had an incredible impact on global cinema; rock and roll could be heard on radios across the continents; and English books have been translated into other languages far more than books in other languages have been translated into English. The 2010s may have been a turning point, however. While English is still overwhelmingly dominant, media has become increasingly multilingual over the past 10 years.

Movies

In 2010, a DVD rental service decided to expand into online streaming. Since then, Netflix has become a cultural force. It’s gone a long way from releasing Orange is the New Black as a relative novelty to producing dozens of TV shows and movies in the past year alone. And while Netflix is only one in the ever-expanding world of streaming services, it’s probably done the most for bringing foreign-language movies and television into the mainstream.

Part of the reason for this shift is that big television networks no longer hold the same sway they once did. You would never see a subtitled show during primetime on NBC, Fox, CBS or ABC, and the options beyond that aren’t much more linguistically diverse. Netflix and other streaming services have the advantage of being able to create a ton of content, and no rigid time slots that they need to heed. Starting with already existing content, the streaming service began making Netflix Originals in other languages. Since the high-profile premiere of Spanish Narcos, Netflix has created shows all over the globe, including Elite (Spanish), Babylon Berlin (German) and The Rain (Danish).

Netflix’s multilingual offerings aren’t entirely philanthropic, of course. Producing high-quality content in a range of languages is a smart business move that allows the company to break into new markets. There’s even a law in the European Union that requires at least 30 percent of streaming services’ catalogs be local content. Because streaming service offerings change depending on what country you’re in, Netflix can play around to ensure a viewer is getting a reasonable amount of locally created content. So yes, the new influx of multilingual content is partially a byproduct of streaming services wanting to make more money. But if it allows for the creation of language-learning materials and gives voice to more people from outside the English-speaking world, it’s a good thing.

Books

There has been a commonly cited statistic for the amount of literature published in the United States and the United Kingdom that is translated: 3 percent. The figure originates from PEN World Voices, which did a study all the way back in 2005 to look at the state of works in translation. The 3 percent problem has become a kind of shorthand in publishing, and it’s an especially discouraging statistic when compared to other countries like those in Europe which publish anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of their literature in translation. In the past decade, a number of developments have addressed this problem. The results have been mixed.

On the one hand, there have been some incredible success stories for literature in translation in the past 10 years. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle all captured the literary world. And perhaps above all others is Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels were incredibly popular and have been adapted into an Italian-language HBO show. While there is some concern that these examples are representative of lucky individuals rather than a structural move toward more translated literature, these authors have helped buoy their fellow non-English writers in the global publishing world.

Yet in the past 10 years, there hasn’t been as much movement on that 3 percent problem as people had hoped. Translated literature is still considered a gamble, and translators themselves struggle to make a living. Despite the work of publishers and publications like Europa Editions, New Vessel Press, Asymptote Magazine and Coffee House Press — to choose a few of many —  there has not yet been a literary language coup. In fact, the growth of translated literature peaked in 2016, and has been contracting since then.

To cap things off, in 2019 a new company claimed the title as the largest publisher of translated literature in the United States: Amazon Crossing. As anyone who works in publishing can tell you, Amazon becoming a major player in translated literature is a mixed blessing at best. It’s hard to argue against their success, though. The translation imprint was announced in 2010, and in the past 10 years it’s published more than 400 books. Amazon is primed for this kind of venture, given that they can afford to take risks that other publishers can’t. Their success, however, may encourage a greater investment in translated literature in the coming decade.

Music

If you were conscious at all during 2017, you heard the song “Despacito” at least a billion times. This song, performed by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (and featuring Justin Bieber, at least in the version of the song that includes some English), was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for 16 weeks. It was also the first non-English song to make it to the top of this list since 1996, when “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” fever took the United States by storm.

While “Despacito” may have been helped along a bit by Justin Bieber’s star power, it’s part of a larger trend. Latin music has become increasingly popular around the world. Artists like J Balvin, Rosalía and Bad Bunny have all infiltrated a traditionally English-centric music world. Reggaeton and trap in particular have become an incubator for Latin music’s success over the past decade.

While Spanish is the fastest-growing music language in the United States — primarily thanks to the large proportion of Spanish speakers in the country — there’s another strong current: Korean pop, more catchily called K-pop. While the music has been around for a while, the second half of the 2010s have proven pivotal. The band BTS, in particular, has broken through, having not one but two number-one albums on the Billboard Hot 200 in 2018, as well as performing on Saturday Night Live in 2019. It hasn’t quite hit full cultural saturation, but there have already been plenty of comparisons of BTS and the Korean Wave to the Beatles and the British Invasion of the 1960s. We’ll likely see this wave crest in the 2020s.

Like movies and TV shows, multilingualism in music may have streaming to thank for its proliferation. While it was already very popular in Europe, Spotify didn’t launch in the United States until 2011. Now, at the end of the decade, it has over 100 million paid subscribers. There are plenty of arguments elsewhere that streaming services are hurting the music industry, but if there’s one positive it’s that finding Spanish music, French music or music in pretty much any other language is easier than ever.

Thomas Moore Devlin

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10 Words that Defined the 2010s

It’s been a long decade, and the world has changed quite a bit. It can be hard to try to digest 3652 days into just a few terms, but we decided to try. Here are the 10 words that capture the last 10 years best. 

1. Global Warming

You probably heard about global warming before the 2010s (maybe all the way back in the 1970s if you’re a member of the scientific community), but it was in the last 10 years that global warming became a part of our daily lives. More than half of the 2010s (from 2014 to 2019) were the hottest years we’ve ever recorded, and rates of fires and other natural disasters are increasing

Considering that most countries did not hit their greenhouse gas reduction targets that they committed to in the Paris Climate Accords, there’s probably not a clear end in sight for climate change. So perhaps this is the first decade where we’re taking global warming seriously, but it definitely will not be the last. The phrase “global warming” itself seems to be waning, however, as scientists and journalists are now using “global heating” and “climate emergency” to convey the seriousness of the global situation.

2. #MeToo

Feminism, like global warming, has been a long time coming, but 2017’s #MeToo movement caused a reckoning across several industries, and changed the way that people talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault. The #MeToo phrase got its start in the ’00s when activist Tarana Burke used it to raise awareness for the pervasiveness of sexual assault, but the hashtag was catapulted into a larger movement during the October 2017 allegations of Harvey Weinstein. In the years that followed, over 200 powerful men were removed from their positions — and people everywhere have had to rethink power dynamics in the workplace.

3. Smartphone

At the beginning of the decade, only around a fifth of Americans owned a smartphone. Now, it’s nearly impossible to commute to work, go to dinner or even walk around outside without seeing scores of people looking at their smartphones. Perhaps they’re highly addictive, making us unhappy and negatively impacting our in-person interactions, but they sure are convenient. There’s now an app for just about anything (including language learning!), so these handy devices probably aren’t going away anytime soon. 

4. Hack

Speaking of smartphones, it would be impossible to talk about this technology without mentioning hacking. According to Business Insider, 10 of the most massive data breaches in history took place in the last 10 years. On top of this, there was also the infamous iCloud hacking in 2014 that included over 500 images of nude celebrities, which spurred a cultural conversation about privacy in the digital age. 

“Hack” doesn’t always have a negative connotation, though. The word just means breaking the rules (these “rules” are usually “software systems”). The 2010s is the decade of the life hack, where people find innovative ways to tackle everyday tasks. There are also parts of hacker culture that attempt to do good for the world, like hacktivists. But the ethics are murky, and trying to differentiate good hacking from bad hacking may be impossible.

5. Arab Spring

The Arab Spring started on December 18, 2010 in Tunisia after a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because of continual mistreatment from the local authorities. Protests in Tunisia then spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and large demonstrations were seen in countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa. While there were many factors, individuals across countries were largely protesting against their authoritarian regimes, poor standards of living and widespread corruption.

Besides shaking up a geopolitical region, the Arab Spring makes this list because it plays a significant role in many other important events of the 2010s. Protests in Syria lead to the Syrian Civil War, which triggered over 6 million people to flee the country. This instability also allowed ISIS to gain a greater hold over the country. In Yemen, protests ultimately led to a Civil War that caused the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis of the last couple of years.

6. Populism 

What do Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Brexit all have in common? They’re all closely associated with the new populist movements. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, populism is “a type of politics that claims to represent the opinions and wishes of ordinary people.” The phrase “claims to represent” is likely important there. People across Europe, the Americas, and even parts of South America have recently turned to populist parties as an alternative to the political establishment. Only time will tell how these anti-establishment movements ultimately leave their mark on history.

7. #BlackLivesMatter

Much like #MeToo, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was a culmination of many years of activism finally coming to the forefront. #BlackLivesMatter (shortened to #BLM) is a movement that pushes back against violence and institutional racism of black Americans (and black individuals worldwide). It moved to the forefront of public discourse after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, and continued to gain steam in the form of in-person protests after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Later this decade, the movement received more attention after nearly 200 NFL players committed to kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of the treatment of black people in the United States.

8. Selfie 

Amid all of these social movements, the 2010s have seen a shift towards highly personalized, individualistic trends. Nothing encapsulates this better than selfies. Whether you’re having Christmas with your parents or going out for drinks with friends, every occasion can now be best captured with a picture taken by yourself. Selfies have been derided as the marker of self-obsessed young people, but the desire to capture one’s own image permeates the entire history of art. For the entrepreneurs out there, this self-art form can also be very lucrative: even smaller influencers (see our list of honorable mentions below) can rake in up to $100,000 a year. 

9. Woke

If you pay attention to mainstream media, it could seem like “woke” appeared for the first time in the past few years. But as we’ve written about in another article, “woke” actually dates all the way back to 1962. This phrase originated in African American Vernacular English, and is used today to refer to people who are politically conscious of social injustices (or by people who just want to seem politically conscious). Just looking at this list, there’s been a lot to keep track of in the last two years: institutional racism and sexism, displaced peoples, human rights violations globally. On top of that, there have been big wins (and losses) for LGBTQ rights, immigration, gender identity and mental health. 

10. Self-care 

Many words on this list might raise your anxiety, which is why the last item on this list is so important. Self-care in its most basic sense it’s the intentional care for your body and mind, but has also entered the public consciousness as a means of taking a step back, buying lots of personal care items and/or “treating yourself.”

There have been concerns about certain brands (cough cough Goop) have capitalized on self-care to convince people they need to buy things to feel better, but the original idea is worth keeping in mind. All jokes aside, it’s been a rough 10 years in many ways, so don’t forget to take some time for yourself and your wellbeing. 

Honorable mentions:

vaping, cancel, YOLO, Bitcoin, bae, (marriage) equality, influencer, ISIS, Netflix (and chill?), opioid, pronoun, Thrones (as in, Game of), Trump, zombies

Claire Larkin

New decade? Time to learn a new language.
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We are a team of more than 750 people from over 50 nations with a shared passion for languages. From our offices in Berlin and New York, we help people discover the joys of self-directed language learning. We currently offer 14 different languages — from Spanish to Indonesian — that millions of active subscribers choose to learn.

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