From lolcat to textspeak: How technology is shaping our language

And what does the future hold for the English language online?
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

And what does the future hold for the English language online?

In the third of a series of articles examining the impact of technology on our society and ourselves, silicon.com's Natasha Lomas looks at how technology is changing our language.

In the hyperconnected Western world, our preoccupation with technology is evident in the glut of new expressions now in common parlance. Cringeworthy they may be, but expressions such as 'Let's take this offline, 'Do you have bandwidth?' and 'My brain needs a reboot' signify tech has become interwoven into our language. But is technology having a more lasting impact on our words? How are the digital communications tools we use shaping what we say and type?

The birth of new words, and new meanings for existing words, are the most obvious signs of what technology has wrought in linguistic terms.

A significant number of new words are being driven into the language because of the increasingly pervasive role technology plays in our lives, according to lexicographer John Simpson, a senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. "Digital technology is one of the main motivating forces behind new vocabulary," he tells silicon.com.

A to Z of tech-inspired words

The digital world generates more than its fair share of neologisms, slang and new meanings for existing words. Here's a quick A to Z of some of our favourite tech-inspired terms...

A is for antivirus
B is for blogosphere
C is for cloud
D is for dongle
E is for email
F is for flamebait
G is for Googling
H is for hotdesking
I is for internet
J is for jingle
K is for keylogger
L is for LOL
M is for malware
N is for noob
O is for OMG
P is for pwned
Q is for QR code
R is for ripping
S is for social networking
T is for techie
U is for user-generated content
V is for voicemail
W is for wireless
X is for .xxx
Y is for ya rly
Z is for zing

Words and phrases such as cloud computing, iPhone, social networking and QR code are relative newcomers - or noobs, to use online slang - to our language, for example.

Technology is by no means the only area ushering in significant quantities of new words. Simpson notes other fertile regions including slang, finance, politics, medicine and other sciences - but he says the pervasiveness of digital technology, which now percolates down through so many industries, means it is also responsible for subsets of lexical newcomers.

It's this expansiveness - technology pushing everywhere, into everything - that makes its contribution such a significant one.

"What has happened, as you might expect, is digital technology has come to permeate our day-to-day life and so it becomes responsible for new vocabulary at a secondary level," he says.

These are not just words for specialist electronic processes or components, but terminology from various industries "which have only been formed because of the digital technology which has made them possible".

Simpson cites digital technology in genetics, or statistical or architectural modelling, as examples of areas where this secondary tier of tech-fuelled terminology is entering the language.

Other reasons technology can be such a good word, and indeed slang, generator are both the pace of change enabled by technology - new types of products will almost automatically spawn new denominations - and the presence of large numbers of young people in the digital sphere, according to Simpson.

"Online environments have not only predominantly young participants who already start with a variety of language which is growing away from that of the next generation, they are keen to cleave that divide even deeper by creating new slang - funny, secret, full of allusion, etc - but they are also operating within a new and exciting technology, which is also on the move all the time - from SMS to email to photos to Facebook.

"With all these influences out there, it's hardly surprising that...

...things are happening," Simpson tells silicon.com.

Much techie slang may never make it into the dictionary as formal vocabulary but it can flourish online nonetheless - and be taken to such extremes it can be fleshed out into a cult dialect such as lolcat or leetspeak.

"Often slang sparkles for a few years and then sinks back into obscurity," says the OED's Simpson. "We can't predict which slang terms will survive - or even find their way into other languages. You can never second-guess the linguistic future."

To the casual onlooker, lolcat may appear to be just a silly caption style for funny cat photos but lolcat lovers have banded together online to translate the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into their favourite lingo.

"Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem," opens Genesis 1 of the Lolcat Bible. There's even, inevitably, a paper book of the lolcatified tome now on sale.


Oh hai lolcat: How long will the internet lingo last?Creative Commons: Phoebe Epstein

Silly it may be, but lolcat has had surprising staying power - the lolcats.com domain was first registered around 2006 and lolcats are still powering popular sites like icanhazcheezburger.com.

However, professor David Crystal, honorary professor at the School of Linguistics and English Studies at the University of Bangor and a prolific writer of books about language, does not believe lolcats' long (and furry) tail will last forever.

"This kind of ludicity [linguistic playfulness] is very attractive for a while. People keep it going and then it sort of falls out of use. Exactly how long it will go on for is unclear but it's like any game, any novelty, any linguistic novelty - I can't see it lasting.

"Apart from anything else, the technology moves on and people find new things to do," he says. "Bear in mind that we're at the very beginning of this internet era - the biggest changes are yet to come."

Crystal says the eventual fate of lolcat can be extrapolated by looking at online communities that had their heyday in the 90s - such as multi-user dungeons (MUDs) - which are now largely extinct.

"If you look back 10 years ago to the kind of clever-clever things that were going on in the 1990s - MUDs and MOOs - all the early game strategies and lots of very interesting language features coming up as people tried to develop a style of language that would suit the technology. Well, that technology's history now and the language has gone with it.

"One notices the novelties because they're novelties - because there's never been anything like it in the language before - but in terms of long-term influence, I suspect very, very little will happen," adds Crystal.

The internet's contribution is not therefore as great as we might imagine, not when all these newly minted tech words are weighed against the vast library of existing words in the English language.

"About five years ago for a book I was writing I counted up all the new words I could find that had come into English as a result of the internet and I got a couple of thousand," he says. "If I did it today I suppose there would be four or five thousand.

"People say that's a lot. Well, no, it isn't. English is a language with a million and a half words in it, an extra five thousand new ones isn't world-shattering news. So yes, there has been change as a result of technology as you'd expect, but it hasn't been...

...as great as people think."

Beyond neologisms, technology's impact can be found in other linguistic curios: mobile phone textspeak, for example, entered common parlance during the early years of SMS, before cheaper texts and predictive text meant keeping the number of characters to a minimum was less of an imperative.


How many words has technology driven into the English language?Creative Commons: David A. Cofrin Library

"People noticed the abbreviations of text messaging - as in 'c u l8r' and 'lol' - and thought, 'Oh my, it's a brand-new language, we can't understand any of this'. But when you actually look at it objectively, you find that again less than 10 per cent of text messages have these abbreviations. A very, very small proportion really."

It's a similar story for the emoticon: despite its relative novelty, it doesn't represent a wholesale rewriting of the linguistic rules, according to Crystal.

"There's never been emoticons quite like the ones we have now, so when you see them you think, 'Wow, this is new, this is fantastic, this is a new language'.

"But when you step back and ask the question calmly, 'Just how many emoticons are frequently used?', the answer is of course a very tiny number indeed. Less than 10 per cent of internet messages have emoticons and that number is falling actually as the novelty wears off," he says.

While the smiley may be linguistic small fry, and continues to have no place in the dictionary - "The word 'emoticon' is already in the OED," notes Simpson, "but we deal with words, not symbols, so we don't have room for them" - there are areas where technology has had a bigger impact on language, according to the University of Bangor's Crystal: the most obvious being the development of new linguistic styles or varieties.

Traditional examples of linguistic varieties include regional dialects and occupational or social variation, but Crystal says the internet has added significantly to this range.

"A language isn't a single homogeneous, stylish entity. It consists of a huge range of what in linguistics we'd call varieties and in popular use people would call dialects or styles," says Crystal.

"The most noticeable thing that the internet has done is provide us with a range of new varieties - all technologically driven - the likes of which we've never seen before. Just like when newspapers came along - suddenly we saw a whole range of new styles of written language presenting in its pages. And when the broadcasters came along we saw a whole range of new spoken styles, like sports commentary and newsreading and weather forecasting.

"The same thing's happening with the internet. So you look at the range of internet outputs, as I call them, like email, chat rooms, blogging, social networking, Twitter, instant messaging and so on.

"Each of these is very clearly stylistically different from all the others. In other words, if you had a little extract dropped on your desk and you weren't told where it came from you'd be able to tell from the language whether it was an email or a chat or whatever, simply because of...

...the way the language has responded to the constraints of the technology.

"So this, I think, is the biggest area [of tech-driven linguistic change]: the internet has increased the stylistic expressiveness of language."

Being able to distinguish an email from an IM or an SMS from a tweet may sound trivial but this wealth of linguistic styles underlines the plethora of communications mediums that technology has put at our fingertips.

New and exciting these comms tools may be, but are they having a significant and lasting impact on the fundamental structure of our language? Again no, not in Crystal's view, although he believes it is too soon to evaluate the long-term linguistic impact of the internet.

Professor David Crystal

It's too soon to evaluate the long-term linguistic impact of the internet, says professor David CrystalCreative Commons: David Crystal

"These properties of communication are indeed novel and radical - and I'd say revolutionary - but when you actually look at the other question, 'What specific impact have they had on vocabulary or grammar?', the answer is relatively little," he says.

Crystal adds: "We're still evaluating the impact of broadcasting on language nearly 100 years later, so with the internet, which is, for most people, less than 20-years-old - and most of the really popular developments like social networking and so on are less than a decade old - it's far too soon to say anything about the long-term impact on languages or on language generally."

While the full impact of technology on our language is decades or longer away from being known, there is one area where the digital world appears to be leaving a lasting - and positive - linguistic legacy.

The OED's Simpson believes the advent of so many new styles could increase people's awareness of language generally, and even improve literacy.

"Language is going to change over time. People today have to be very aware of the different modes of language use - what to use at a job interview, what to use at home, what to use on the internet - and how other people speak. I think that can lead to a strengthening of people's awareness of language rather than a downturn in competence," he says.

Is there any evidence on the flipside that technology is having a negative impact on language? Headlines about textspeaking teenagers 'c u l8r'-ing and forgetting how to spell in the process were a common sight a few years ago, while online spellings and acronyms - such as LOL and OMG - still cause hand-wringing in certain sections of society.

"There is no evidence whatsoever [of technology having a negative impact on language]," says Crystal.

"The research that's being done shows precisely the contrary. If you take text messaging as a case in point, the notion that text messaging causes poor spelling is absolute nonsense - on the contrary, you've got to be a good speller in order to text in the first place. If it's cool to leave letters out in order to communicate with your mates you've got to know there are letters there in the first place to leave out."

He cites a 2006 study by researchers at Coventry University which found that use of text message abbreviations by children was linked with literacy achievements - the more a child texted, the better their literacy scores, and the longer a child had owned a mobile phone, the better their scores.

"Literacy is the ability to read and write. How do you improve literacy? By practice - the more you practice, the better you'll be. And along comes a technology which gives you more opportunity to practice reading and writing than anything you've ever had before," says Crystal. "People say teenagers don't read. Well, I've never seen a teenager not walking down the street reading - reading his mobile phone, of course, but the point is reading.

"It's not Dickens, it's not Shakespeare but he is...

...reading and writing and, as a result, it's not so surprising that this technology is actually producing an improvement in literacy."

LOLs and OMGs may not be to everyone's taste but they do signify a radical facet of technology: it has given the wired masses the ability to self-publish. Blogs, social network posts and even quickly fired-off emails without capitalisation and punctuation hark back to a much rawer form of written discourse - not seen in public since at least the Middle Ages.

"Anything you've ever seen in the public written domain before the internet, whether in print or even handwritten - but usually in print - since the 18th century, has been through the guiding control of somebody - an editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, a house style manager in a publishing house, and so on," he says. "But if I do a blog, no copy editor is peering over my shoulder saying, 'Oh David you should have put a comma in there', so suddenly we're seeing for the first time written language in a much more naked state - much more like it was in the Middle Ages before all these things came to pass."

Chaucer pilgrims

Language online harks back to the English of the Middle Ages - before English was standardisedCreative Commons: Matt Brown

The OED's Simpson also makes this point: the lack of an editor's pen is enabling a greater degree of linguistic variation to manifest itself in the digital world than has been sanctioned via traditional publishing channels.

Simpson argues that such variation is not itself created by technology but simply made visible in a way that wasn't possible even a handful of years ago.

"There's much wider access to written discourse nowadays - with the internet, email etc," he says, "so we can see a wide spectrum of spelling and grammar in the various media.

"If our grandparents, at all levels of society, had had the same media a hundred years ago, I think we'd have seen terrific variances in the types of spelling and grammar on offer but in those days, more or less everything that was seen publicly was mediated by editors so the variation wasn't as obvious as it is today."

The ability to self-publish explains the rise of many more informal linguistic styles in the digital sphere, compared to its printed equivalent.

After all, standard written English is just another linguistic style - albeit one policed by legions of editors and proofreaders, and given priority in the 18th century by prescriptive grammarians seeking to reinforce class distinctions through language.

Conventions for capitalisation, punctuation, spelling and grammar were actively enforced at this time, notes Crystal - yet the Middle English of Chaucer and earlier Old English did not adhere to such rules and nor, now, does the English of chat rooms, SMS and email.

"You and I can send each other emails and not punctuate at all," says Crystal. "We can leave out all punctuation marks, no capital letters and we will understand each other. A lot of emails are like that.

"This of course is exactly how English was when it was first written down in Anglo-Saxon times. There was no punctuation. Sometimes even the words weren't separated from each other by spaces. Punctuation didn't start to emerge until the Middle English period - and then of course it became...

...hugely developed and became an absolutely obligatory feature of standard English as we all know now.

"What emails are doing, and the other domains where punctuation is minimalist, is in a sense, the users are recognising the fact that you don't actually need punctuation in order to understand each other, apart from in a tiny, tiny, proportion of cases where there might be an ambiguity."

The standard written English of convention has been joined in the public sphere by an explosion of colloquial and more casual written language suddenly made visible online.

"Formality is a spectrum," adds Crystal. "Going from the most formal to the least formal, in languages like in clothing or anything. [So] suddenly now what we're seeing is an elongation of the least formal end of the spectrum on the internet.

"The formal end is still there, you will find on the internet very formal documents, like you find off the internet - legal documents, religious documents and so on - but at the other end you're finding an extraordinary range of informality [that hasn't been seen before]."

Crystal believes there's another, broader underlying trend at work in the digital world that is transforming language: the blurring of the line between written language and speech. This trend goes some way to explaining why so much linguistic informality blossoms online.

"Written language is becoming much more speech-like," he says. "More conversation-like and all kinds of rules are being broken all over the place - that is, the traditional rules of the written language are being broken.

"Or perhaps one should put it another way: the original rules of the spoken language are manifesting themselves in written form in a way that we haven't seen for an awful long time.

"For a linguist like me, this is very exciting but for your average pedant this is horrifying."

Crystal points to the entangled terminology used to describe digital communications - such as 'email conversation' or 'chat room' - as symptomatic of how tech-enabled comms are already starting to cross the divide between written and spoken language.

He believes technologies such as speech-to-text translation, automatic voice recognition and automatic speech translation will add further momentum to this linguistic collision of the spoken and written word.

"The change from a written medium to a spoken medium [online]... is the next big thing isn't it?" he tells silicon.com.

"You can now speak your email into your computer and it will write it for you - you have to manually correct it. It's not brilliant, but it's infinitely better than it was a year ago. In 10 years time it's going to be fantastic. Then of course there's… automatic speech translation: I'm speaking to you in French, the internet is translating me into English at your end - the real Babelfish concept. That's going to be a huge development over time."

"In 20 years time we'll be speaking to each other over the internet far more than we're writing to each other, I suspect," he adds.

"I don't think writing will ever disappear, any more than I think books are going to disappear as a result of the internet - they perform a different range of functions. Writing performs a different range of functions from speech and books offer a whole range of different opportunities for interactions with writing than does the internet.

"Exactly what the balance will be between speaking and writing in 50 years time I've no idea, but certainly speech will reassert itself more than it has in the last 300 or 400 years."

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