Language change: the impact of technology on the words we use

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Nick Beaumont

11 Feb 2021

It’s a funny old business, being a technology copywriter. At first, these words appear to be opposites: a world of quills, pretentious beard stroking and earthy Chesterfields slammed up against silicone chips and flashing mainframes. But delve a little deeper, and you’ll find the two worlds complement each other in weird and fascinating ways. Now, I’m aware that not all of you see technology’s impact on language as wholly positive. Indeed, many polyglot purists view technology as downright corrosive, vehemently wagging their tongues at the emojis and ‘textspeak’ they feel have invaded their mother tongue. ‘Cya’ ‘Wuu2 ‘: )’ Such ways of speaking, they feel, are lazy, uncouth, even vulgar. But I ask you, dear reader, to suspend your disdain for just a few moments. Because in this short article, I hope to convince you that technology is evolving language in a wholly healthy and natural way, and the changes we see are part of a linguistic tradition that started at the very beginning of written communication.

Language though the ages

If there is one thing I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: technology has always shaped language use. Let’s not forget that writing is itself a technology. When our ancestors first started engraving cave walls, they’d invented something spectacular: a method of taking fleeting, ephemeral sounds that disappeared in the air, and communicating them in a way that would endure literally thousands of years. From there, history has repeatedly shown the implement or surface of a given communication tool has a huge impact on language – particularly writing: take the stiff, straight lines of cuneiform script chiselled into stone tablets, or flowing Chinese characters painted with a brush. Both technologies changed the very look and feel of their respective languages. Years passed. Empires rose and fell. Brushes and chisels evolved into quills, and a new mongrel language called English became the latest to adopt an obscure, 3000-year-old set of ancient Phoenician characters to express itself: the alphabet. The arrival of the printing press (1440) went beyond quills, bringing with it graphical contrasts such as bold and italic, the art form of typography, and of course upper and lower cases; so named after the physical cases the letters were stored in – capitals in the ‘upper’ part of the case, small letters in the ‘lower’ part. (Incidentally, it brought with it new forms of punctuation, some of which we sadly no long use: the interrobang (‽) for example, which today we present rather blandly as ‘!?’; and a colon followed by a hyphen (:-), nicknamed the ‘dog’s bollocks’, which would pleasingly go on to give us one of our favourite British phrases.) Printing technology also give us a whole set of new conventions for spelling, spacing, line-breaking, and hyphenating. Doubtless, tongues were set a-wagging at just how much traditional language had been ripped up. But the purists were defeated by the sheer pragmatism the technology afforded. The 19th century brought its own innovations: the telegraph, the typewriter, the Word Document yours truly is using this very moment. And while I’ve been concentrating on written English, the ability to transmit voice over distances brought a slew of spoken conventions: the exchange of greetings over a phone line, the enthusiastic patter of a radio sports commentary, the formal clarity of a TV news announcer. Queen’s English rose to prominence as ‘standard English’, with dialect forms dismissed as lazy, uncouth and even vulgar (remind you of anything?) In the space of a few paragraphs we’ve travelled 5500 years. And as I hope you can see, the theme remains the same throughout the whole of human history: new mediums bring with them new written conventions, new graphical features, new rules, new expressions, new ways of talking. For all the weight we give them, words are specs of flotsam undulating on the great sea of human progress; churned, channelled and shaped by the society and technology around it. And as we broke into the 21st century, that undulating sea was about to become a whirlpool.

Enter the internet

Hopefully, with the above chronology, you can see how English has never been fixed. It’s always morphed and changed with the times. And from that perspective, the internet is simply the next step in a completely natural evolution. It’s beyond the scope of this article to distil all the features of digital communication. After all, the internet is home to an ever-increasing set of sub-mediums, ranging from email to Snapchat to chatbots. There are however prominent features that we associate with ‘netspeak’. Many of these are so obvious, we barely think about them. The various neologisms we coin for example, by creating a compound of two words. Things like software, podcast, email and cybercrime.  These examples also neatly demonstrate the popular prefixes and affixes that are used. Things like -ware, cyber- and e-. Capitalisation has also gone through a radical shift. Most informal online communication throws out steadfast rules set out by the 14th century printing presses. Looking at my phone now, I can see these beauties (incidentally, not written by me). ‘where are you?’ ‘im going to asda. ‘i dunno. you? Capitalisation for proper nouns, the start of sentences, and the singular first person pronoun are simply not needed. Yet capitalisation does have a use. BiCaps for example, which you will be instantly familiar with if you look at eBay, iPhone, AskJeeves, or any other words that have a capital beyond the first letter. We also now use capitals in a more emotive way. ‘WHERE ARE YOU???!’ an angry mother may WhatsApp their teen son/daughter if they stay out too late. Notice too the overuse of questions marks (perhaps a sly interrobang(‽) would have been more efficient?). You would never see a sentence like this in ‘standard’ writing. And perhaps that’s just the point: informal digital communication isn’t ‘standard’. In many ways, texting, emailing and instant messaging has more in common with spoken English than written. It has a rawness and immediacy that simply doesn’t come when, for example, one is slogging through the third draft of this blog. And it’s not just capitals. The old rules of writing, set down hundreds of years before we had computers, are simply too inflexible for the digital world. In order to convey the immediacy and personality of a conversation in written form, rules need to be broken. ‘I *really* hate him’ ‘arghhh wtf’ ‘Shut. Up.’ ‘Hey bae wuu2?’ And I haven’t even got into the divisive world of emojis (which incidentally has an interesting etymology of its own: rather than deriving from the English word ‘emotion’, it comes from the Japanese words ‘e’ (picture) + ‘moji’ (character), and dates back as far as 1999! But the effect of globalisation on English is a topic for another blog.) Basic emojis (or emoticons) follow exactly the same principle as the above: they’re a way of bending and distorting a language’s standard set of graphological features in order to express new ideas and convey new emotion. The standard fare have been around since the days of texting: :( :D :P But a quick search of the internet will find you some amazing creations. Nowadays phones will include sets of pictorial emojis that act as script and can be inserted into written communications, but the function is still the same as those traditional emoticons: it’s a way of embellishing, evolving, and equipping written language to convey things that letters alone simply cannot. I could go on. But the point I want to leave you with is that the language we see online is in no way a degeneration of what has come before. Written communication has evolved from something used to count grains of wheat through to ancient legal documents, recording stories, sharing the news, and now a digital supplement to speech. In each case, humans had to bend, change and create in order for language to express what was needed. And in fact, there has never been a ‘standard’ English. Shakespeare himself spelt his name multiple different ways – sometimes even on the same document! Of course, we do need some form of standardisation (I’m as annoyed as the next copywriter at businesses who can’t spell right.) But unlike France, who actively fights anglicized loanwords like ‘software’, ‘Walkman’ and ‘email’ in favour of original French words, we don’t have an academy that tries to police what comes and goes out of our language. English has a proud tradition of being a democratic language – one where influences come and go not because they are officially ordained from above, but because they are in common use. The OED does not tell you what is or isn’t allowed: it simply provides a snapshot of the common parlance at that particular time. So, with all that in mind, I say embrace the chaos. Slather your texts in emojis. Split infinites in your tweets. Use capitals in your work emails until everyone hates you. And most of all, use words to do what they have always been designed to do – to express yourself.