The digital age has undeniably changed the human experience. Today, everything we see, feel, taste, and smell has a virtual overlay; our worlds are interactive in ways we never thought possible. We can map the sky through our smartphones, track our vitals through smart watches, and keep our children safe through smart monitoring devices. And as technology becomes increasingly intertwined with the facets of our lives, there has been a remarkable change to one of our most fundamental forms of understanding: our language. As storytellers in a digital world, understanding that change is key to powerful content creation.
With that in mind, in this series, I’ll be exploring the ways in which technology continues to challenge and evolve what we know to be true of the English language, as well as the effects of those changes on creative industries. In this first piece, I’ll examine the state of the language, and some of the broader changes that have taken place over the past two decades.
Not unlike the dread feeling of lost identity that comes with realizing you’ve awakened as a monstrous vermin, one night, late in the fall of 2000, I realized I could no longer understand my native language.
The feeling was something like that frustrated sensation in your arm when you try really hard to throw something wide and lightweight, like a tissue. A lost feeling of concerted effort that ultimately gets you nowhere. I had always been an avid reader and was no stranger to the art of using context clues to figure out the meaning of a new word, but this was something else. This was a combination of words and letters I already knew, but they were syntactically off. There was (seemingly) no context there to be clued into. And to suffer that feeling in the middle of a conversation with your friend? Super embarrassing—especially for an admittedly nerdy middle schooler.
Let me set the scene. At the time, there was a lot of strange magic happening around the world of communication, especially as it related to dial-up internet. The last of the late adopters had just gotten over the advent of email, so gone were the days of such offensive accidents as typing emails in all capital letters to ensure the recipient could clearly read them (oh wait, was that just me?). Now, norms had been established for email communication, and the nation had adopted them with relative ease.
Back then, my family was using Juno, as opposed to the near-ubiquitous AOL, for our dial-up internet needs—so the idea of communicating at instant speed via text was way beyond my adolescent imagination. In fact, when my friends explained AIM to me over lunch one afternoon, I just about passed out.
Fast-forward a few days into my AIM experience. While I’d never had a problem understanding my friends in our day-to-day chats, suddenly I was drowning in a sea of unknown acronyms. I vividly remember misreading “lmao” and asking “What does ‘imao’ mean? I don’t speak Portuguese.” But the moment I knew I had completely lost control of my language surrounded the one piece of punctuation I felt I had totally mastered: the period.
Here’s (approximately) how it went down:
Friend: “Are you mad at me?”
Me: “No, of course not! Why, what’s wrong?”
Friend: “Nothing, it’s just, you always use a period and it makes you sound upset.”
In all my years as a student, a reader, a writer, and whatever else you can reasonably call a middle schooler, I had been told that a period ends any sentence that doesn’t require hyper-enthusiasm, anger, or inquiry. Even in dialogue. But what I didn’t know then, as many of us are only recently learning, is that when it comes to social media, periods have a very distinct, stern feeling that can make the speaker sound insincere.
What’s most amazing to me about that entire experience is the timeline in which these so-called social media norms had developed. AOL Instant Messenger was initially released in 1997. That means in just three short years, an entire subset of the English language and newly defined acceptable uses of punctuation had developed. Crazier still is the fact that 19 years later, those norms are nearly gospel—and sometimes spill into professional emails, blogs, and literature.
It’s no secret that our new culture of instant communication has changed our language. I mean, just imagine telling someone 20 years ago you needed to Google the name of the actor who played Phoebe’s brother in Friends. You need to what his name? Res ipsa loquitur.
One of the coolest things about living in a time when digital communication is at the forefront of technological advancement is that we get to watch our language develop in real time. As we adopt some of these technologies into our lives we find places for them in our sentences; then we can’t remember life without them. Take for example the recent changes to the AP Stylebook, which allow the words “internet” and “web” to be written in lowercase. These terms that once held all the linguistic significance of a God or other holy deity are now as common as birds in your local park, and the written word is ready to reflect that. Similarly, a lot of the “digital versions” of tangible items we once held dear have slowly found places as their own nouns. Take, for example, the evolution from electronic mail to e-mail to email; same with ebooks, ereaders, et al.
We’ve arrived at a place where our speech almost rivals the Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, where portmanteaus and abbreviations reign supreme. Why shoot someone a text message when you could fire off a text? You’re not using Instagram, you’re using the ‘Gram (formerly known as Insta, because yes, even our abbreviations are evolving).
But the future of our language is far from bleak. In fact, one of the most exciting things about being alive right now is that experimentation with language is fully embraced, and it’s arguably bringing people closer together. The social penetration theory of communication says that as couples become closer, they start using more personal idioms and developing their own intimate languages. And because we consumers of technology now have so much power over our language—I mean, we live in a world where we know more about the word we meant to type than autocorrect does—we’re taking back the English language and turning it into something we built and know intimately. It’s something we own and share, and as we open up the opportunity for more voices to contribute, we grant ourselves the gifts of greater empathy and richer lives.
Technology isn’t killing our language, as some might argue; it’s helping our language shed its old skin.
In a TED talk entitled “Txting is killing language. JK!!!,” Linguist John McWhorter addresses the question of whether texting is weakening our writing skills. In it, he refers to texting as “fingered speech,” arguing that our goal with texting is simply to recreate speech through our words. And, says McWhorter, although much of this initially resulted in a shapeless form of communication, there’s a new structure emerging:
“For example, there is in texting a convention, which is LOL. Now LOL, we generally think of as meaning ‘laughing out loud.’ And of course, theoretically, it does, and if you look at older texts, then people used it to actually indicate laughing out loud. But if you text now, or if you are someone who is aware of the substrate of texting the way it’s become, you’ll notice that LOL does not mean laughing out loud anymore. It’s evolved into something that is much subtler.”
If you’re reading this and you’ve texted substantially in your lifetime, you likely know what he means. Today, “LOL” serves several purposes; often, it can be used to soften the blow of a sentence that might otherwise sound too severe (but that also doesn’t require the use of an exclamation point). Here’s McWhorter’s take:
“[LOL is] a marker of empathy. It’s a marker of accommodation. We linguists call things like that pragmatic particles. Any spoken language that’s used by real people has them. […] Whole dissertations could be written about it, and probably are being written about it. A pragmatic particle, that’s what LOL has gradually become. It’s a way of using the language between actual people.”
But why would we need something as rare and extreme as the signifier of outward laughter to offset our statements? What is it that makes a sentence ending in a period so severe to us that we need to end our statements in exclamation points? Why does the ellipsis give us the sense that someone is disappointed in us? And, most importantly, how do these things reflect the way we experience our lives?
It’s not that hard to imagine that the media saturating our lives with huge explosions, impossibly beautiful people, dramatic and often absurd humor, and unimaginable bouts of love and loss—in combination with both our learned need to multitask and our shortening attention spans—have created a complex in which emotional states only exist in extremes. A person can be totally, inexplicably, over-the-moon happy, or she can be devastated, deeply angry; sobbing and punching her pillows. Being “alright” gets roped in with extreme sadness; being vaguely unenthusiastic is cause for serious concern. And sending an inauthentic “Sure.” is a near-guaranteed way to poison your relationship.
But not everyone has a concrete understanding of the way in which their punctuation can change the intonation of their messaging. If you’re an editor or content creator who is tasked with delivering feedback on stories, remember to be sensitive to the recipient’s perception of your ellipses, periods, etc. And, as a storyteller, remember that your editor might be crafting her message from the perspective of a punctuation purist—and perhaps those periods aren’t as severe as they feel.
Once we eliminated our mouths as the middlemen between our minds and the minds of others, we created a new dimension through which to share our ideas. By redefining punctuation and incorporating imagery into our chats for added context, we’ve effectively started to recreate intonation to share our intentions. Need more proof? Consider the fact that in 2015, the OED’s word of the year was the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji.
What’s more, as our technology has evolved, the algorithms developers use to estimate human syntax and understand what they’re truly asking has grown ever closer to perfection. Suddenly, instead of communicating with your iPhone using a near-robotic tech-English hybrid (“auto repair,” “emergency mechanic,” “loud popping”), your phone understands your syntax when you frantically ask for a mechanic in the immediate vicinity. That added element of humanity has even affected content creation strategies: Today’s keyword strategies are built to be more precise to the searchers who would want to read a particular article.
The implications of dealing with a language that’s evolving this rapidly expand far beyond the social media habits that catalyzed these changes. In fact, they touch everything from publishing to freelance content creation, literature, academia, and journalism. Next month, we’ll take a deep dive into the impact of technology on publishing, and examine the future of the digital stylebook. Stay tuned!