In their English Language lessons, our Sixth Form students have been looking at the effects of the digital world on language - a fascinating topic, and one that has produced some excellent work from our students. Here is a great piece from one of our Year 13s.

The effect of the digital world on our language

Where does our online language come from and why does it look the way it does? Should we be worried?

The speed at which words are coined and thrown into the void of the English language is a reflection of how fast language, especially online language, changes. It is also this high pace that makes it difficult to keep track and generalise overall changes omitted to the language.

Everyday usage of technology and correspondence online is still relatively new, only since the late 1990s. And with the aging of technology, people go with it. This is why the average age of people using facebook and sending emails has risen severely over the last decades, to take one year at random: the average age of the emailer in the UK rose from 35.7 to 37.9 between October 2006 and October 2007. How often do you send an email to your friends to ask them what they’re up to?

Terms used to describe online correspondence, such as ‘emailing’ have already changed too. The compounding of this word went from hyphenated to non-hyphenated in less than two decades. ‘Texting’ is also a new verb that arose from the growing popularity of mobile phones. In 2005, this lexis would be used strictly as a noun, "to send a text message," but has now been deviated to an acceptable verb with synonyms such as “DMing” that refer to texting through a specific platform of social media, like twitter or instagram.

Capitalisation has also gone through a radical shift. Most informal online communication throws steadfast rules, set out by the 14th century printing presses, out the window. “i dunno”, “where are you?”, “i’m leaving now,” all don’t look so strange to you, do they? Capitalisation for proper nouns, the start of sentences, and the singular first person pronoun have been rendered unnecessary. Yet capitalisation does have a use. BiCaps for example, which you understand immediately if you look at eBay, iPhone, 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???!’ this sounds angry by the looks of it, a point that is exaggerated by the overuse of punctuation, which is a new thing too.

Another addition from online language: text abbreviations and acronyms. Shortened versions of a word or phrase used; they save time and let you avoid typing and allow messages to say as short as possible.

The original reason behind sending text messages that were as short as possible was the tight bandwidth constraints of the wireless networks at the time; most early GSM mobile phone handsets did not support the ability to send text messages. The first, most common method of commercial texting is referred to as “multi-tap.” Each number on the phone is connected to three or four letters. For example, the “3″ key displays “D”, “E” and “F.” This wasn’t efficient and made the process of texting slow going, increasing the popularity of abbreviations and their usefulness. Abbreviations such as “LOL”, “OMG”, “IDK” (now probably more familiar as “lol”, "omg” and “idk”) became a part of everyday vocabulary and they stuck.

In today’s texting, however, people opt to copy their style of speech as closely as possible. Onomatopoeic terms such as, “um”, “hahaha”, “hmm” are all popular features of online language. Perhaps the idea is to recreate the speech patterns as closely as possible because with online communication one major aspect is missing: the body language. Therefore, by using these ‘sounds’ we can imitate a real life conversation. This is also evident in lexis such as “dunno”, “lemme” and “gotta”. These terms aren’t necessarily shorter from their full forms, “don’t know”, “let me”, “got to” but the pragmatics suggest a more casual tone, a closer representation of the human speech that is translated into online language.

This also guides us to the creation and usage of emojis. Emojis act as a support to language, they allow people to understand the tone of the conversation; they are a visual representation of emotions, status, and ideas. Emojis are a way of bending and distorting a language’s standard set of graphological features in order to express new ideas and convey new emotion. They’ve been around since the beginning of texting :), :( and :p have been redecorated into 😀,🙁 and 😛. Today, there are hundreds of emojis that can all be inserted into language to embellish and equip written language to convey things that letters alone simply cannot.

Language reflects the state of society, the conflict and the cooperation, the awareness and the likeness. It is therefore no surprise that the words have travelled from online language into our legal books; crimes that became so common and severe that they found a spot in the ‘you will be persecuted for this’ handbook. Digital technology has made it easier for people to be criminals. Phrases such as “phishing scams”, “cyberstalking”, “upskirting” and “gaslighting” surely all sound familiar, but thirty years ago none of these were offences as they are today. The origins of these phrases come from a combination of derivation and compounding of various terms. “Phishing scams” comes from catfishing which comes from a documentary titled “Catfish” where the phrase was coined based on a myth involving cod and catfish. “Upskirting” is derived from the literal action of taking a photograph of a girl at an angle so that one can see up her skirt. Thus, while some terms surrounding online language are relatively harmless and are created to essentially reflect and copy actual speech patterns, others are created so that the law can label the new creative ways in which people terrorise one another.

“Less is more,” a problem phrase that now represents the new graphology of language. Dense writing, no matter how important or compelling, does not get read anymore. This can be chalked up to the online world, with so much of it at your disposal--all of it waiting at your fingertips--you can always move on to something else. The brain gets stimulated more than it ever has before and that's why people get bored faster now; with large chunks of text, people who talk too slowly etc. Digital technology has changed the way we lay out our writing, sparse short paragraphs which are to the point and exact. We don’t beat around the bush anymore.

The changes of language that come from the online world beg the question: what’s the effect of all this change? What does it mean for our speech and our communication and our writing? Overall our language hasn’t changed so much; we still do our school exams and our notes and our emails the same way we did twenty-thirty years ago.

Our informal tone is what has changed the most, when we speak to our families and friends we choose to adopt some new ‘trendy’ words and then mostly through texts and online platforms. In reality our day to day speech hasn’t changed too much. Languages have no existence apart from the people who use them. And because people are changing all the time, their language changes too, to keep up with them. The only languages that don't change are dead ones. Therefore, there is nothing to fear about the compounding and deriving, broadening and narrowing of words. Technology has always changed language use; the printing press, the telephone, the television and now the internet.

Written communication has evolved from stone pictographs to papyrus to paper to wireless technology. What we transcribed and wrote down changed with this technology; counting grains of wheat to ancient legal documents to recording stories to sharing news and now it’s an online supplement of speech.

English has a proud (maybe stubborn) tradition of being a democratic language–one where influences come and go. Not because somebody decreed them from above, but because we, the people, say that they are current and because we use them now. The OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, does not tell you what is or isn’t allowed: it simply provides a snapshot of the common language at that particular time and cements how it’s spelled.

So, embrace the chaos. The rules matter but it doesn’t matter that we obey them, slather your texts in punctuation and capitalise nothing. Use language the way it is intended to be used: to express yourself.

Emma, Year 13