The Internet is Transforming Language

How an increasingly digital world is impacting the way we communicate.

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This topic is seriously fascinating to me (sidebar: I studied Linguistics in college, at one time even planning to pursue a PhD). And you don’t often hear about linguistics in mainstream media narratives. But last week Ezra Klein over at Vox interviewed self-described “Internet Linguist” Gretchen McCulloch, who is the host of the podcast Lingthusiasm and also author of the New York Times bestselling book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

They discussed a range of topics regarding how language usage has adapted to an increasingly digital world. From the overuse of exclamation points, to the pragmatics of emojis, to the very popular “OK boomer” trend– it’s an interesting and informative discussion even for those who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in the topic of linguistics. 

The episode is called “Because Podcast” …an ode to the title of McCulloch’s book “Because Internet,” which itself is an ode to the trend of dropping the “of” in “because” phrases. (So instead of saying “because of something” we just say “because this” or “because that.” For example, Why are you having trouble losing weight? Because food. Because dessert.) It adds this extra bit of humor in conveying factual information; in dropping the functional word “of” we lower our level of formality.

There are other trends like this as well; for example, dropping the inflection on the verb “to be.” So, instead of saying “yeah, it’s like that sometimes” we say “yeah, it be like that sometimes.” It’s the same sort of thing. Dropping the level of formality and adding a layer of personality and humor.

All this seems like it’s leading in particular to generational differences in how we communicate and interact with one another– and these differences can be used as a way to draw generational lines and further to mark an in-group and an out-group.

For example, if you’re in your mid-twenties to mid-thirties you’re part of the first generation that really grew up in the digital age. You grew up learning the ways of the internet and are much more of a so-called “digital native” than are older generations. This gives you a level of fluency in digital communication that is much harder for older generations, who grew up without the internet (let alone social media or apps).

Now–not to erase Gen X– but this battle of culture and language seems to be largely between millennials and baby boomers, as seen in the whole “OK boomer” trend that’s really taken off in the past month. The boomers vs. millennials battle is highlighting the differences in our generational experiences that are largely due to our differing exposure and access to technology. But even leading up to this current battle there were countless articles, tweets, and online arguments, etc. illustrating this issue, and there were some hilarious jokes and memes that came out of it.

Many of the jokes that targeted baby boomers poked fun at their technological ineptitude. I’ll never forget one tweet I read (in a hilariously relatable article that compiled various tweets about being a baby boomer). It went something like: “Being a boomer is earning a six figure salary and having a corner office and not knowing how to open a PDF.” Another tweet was in response to a question asking what was the most out-of-touch advice you ever gotten. A millennial responded with how her grandparents suggested you could just walk into various establishments in person and just ask for a job. Both of these examples illustrate the older generations just don’t seem to realize how the times have changed.

And even Gen Xers, like my own parents, don’t always quite “get” everything like the younger generations do. They can probably use an iPhone, but they might only know about maybe 50% generously of its functions. They’re probably on Facebook (not so much on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat) but they probably don’t get all the memes; a lot of things just go right over their heads. And a lot of that has to do with how language has changed over the past several years, especially on the internet.

For a lot of internet trends, including language trends, there are waves of adoption…with different cohorts of people adopting the trend in each wave. And people’s attitudes toward the internet and toward modernization and digitalization impact which cohort they will fall into. Early adopters fully embrace the trends but later adopters are more reluctant or at least less enthusiastic. And this is definitely influenced, although not entirely determined, by age. For one, I’m a millennial who is admittedly generally quite late ato joining a lot of trends, like joining new social media sites. But on the other hand, when it comes to being up on the latest memes and newly coined terms, I’m much more on top of it. 

I also have to admit that as a grammar nerd, it took awhile but being online so much has made me increasingly more comfortable with dropping formality. For instance, sentence fragments, slang, dropping punctuation, dropping function words, etc. And I have to say it’s been somewhat freeing. It feels like a different realm online. You don’t have to abide by all the grammar rules that you would if you were writing an academic paper. Even when writing an editorial piece, you can drop some level of formality in to better match the tone of the internet. Because it’s internet speak, even if it’s in a published article.

There is also a downside though, where now full sentences–in emails for example– can come across as too serious. If you just type out the full sentence with a period, people might take it the wrong way. So the solution to this has seemingly been to substitute periods with exclamation points. Just FYI, I’m super guilty of overusing exclamation points in emails and texts in order to not sound too formal, so don’t be too hard on yourself. There are some emails in which I’m tempted to end nearly every sentence with an exclamation point. I don’t know when exactly it became this way, but I’m still looking for a solution.

Beyond just punctuation, language in the digital age has given us new ways to convey things like emotion, tone, and gesture. For example: emojis. You can express a complete thought with an emoji, or you can completely change the tone of a message. It’s a way to make up for the portions of meaning that are lost when communicating digitally versus speaking face to face. And this is a real problem we face when communicating digitally. You’ve probably heard someone lament at some point that we need a sarcasm font.

I think it will be interesting to see where language trends go in the coming years as we now live in a world that will inevitably only get more and more digital. Please feel free to comment with any of your own interesting observations regarding how language has changed or been affected by our increasingly digital, tech-centered world. And if you’re curious, go ahead and listen to the whole podcast.

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