Culture

Why Has Language Changed So Much So Fast?

How the internet changes language

The easiest language to learn in probably the one you already know, because there’s always something new to learn. Want proof? Because Internet examines how English has changed.

Toward the end of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” linguist Gretchen McCulloch acknowledges a paradox at the heart of her book. On the one hand, books about usage tend to enshrine language in a set of rules, and woe to anyone who tries to break them. On the other, the “new rules” floating in the digital ether are constantly changing; anything tethered to the material world of dead trees can’t possibly keep up.

McCulloch doesn’t have a problem with this. “Rather than thinking of books as a way of embalming language, of rendering it fixed and dead for eternity,” she writes, “we can think of them as maps and guidebooks to help people navigate language’s living, moving splendor.”

With “Because Internet,” she has written an incisive and entertaining guidebook of her own. I was reflexively suspicious of her title — the “because noun” construction is quintessential internetese — but by reading this book I’ve gained a clearer sense why. To someone like me, who was introduced to email in college, the language of online chatter can look almost aggressively cute in the context of a book.

I’m one of what McCulloch calls, with her linguist’s affection for taxonomy, the Semi Internet People — those who “defined themselves by ambivalence towards technology and an orientation towards offline relationships over online ones.” Unlike Full Internet People, who grew up with the internet and never questioned its social potential, Semis tend to assume that conveying the entire social meaning of a message is better accomplished by a voice conversation, whether in person or (to the barely disguised panic of Full Internet People) in a phone call.

But the phone itself was once a profoundly disruptive technology for the English language (and presumably for other languages, too, though this book’s focus is English). As McCulloch explains in one of many illuminating historical anecdotes, simply settling on a standard greeting made for acute confusion. What initially started as a battle between “ahoy” and “hello” (another contender was “what is wanted?” — my new phone greeting) was eventually resolved in favor of “hello”; the word has the same origins as “holler,” and was used at the time as a call for attention.

“Hello” later became an acceptable greeting for all kinds of interactions, but it took a while for it to lose its whiff of impertinence. Now “hello” is not just polite but even a bit formal, compared with a nonchalant “hi!” or “hey!”

Or make that “hey!!!!!” Exclamation points, unlike the period, have so far escaped obsolescence in customarily punctuation-free online interaction; if anything, they’ve been cheapened by overuse, with a single exclamation point being negligibly more eager than no exclamation point at all.

But a string of them, in our age of hyperbole, can sound insincere. McCulloch doesn’t parse the ascendancy of the double exclamation, but “!!” — taking care to keep one’s exclamation points to exactly two — is apparently emerging as the marker of genuine enthusiasm.

For now, at least. One of the overarching themes of “Because Internet” is how fluid all of these norms are. McCulloch says that online exchanges like chats, texts and social media posts afford linguists like her an ideal opportunity for study. Internet language is “beautifully mundane” and, unlike speech, it leaves behind a convenient written record.

Formal language, she says, is mostly disembodied; informal language isn’t. When we talk to a friend, we deploy gestures and facial expressions to give more context to what we’re saying; on the phone, without visual cues, our vocal inflections, volume and laughter do the job. McCulloch is remarkably good at showing how internet speech has been evolving “to restore our bodies to our writing,” as certain online conventions have changed over time.

Take “LOL,” or what is now more typically written as “lol.” As early internet slang, “LOL” meant “laughing out loud,” but then its definition softened, acquiring additional layers of meaning. The lowercase “lol” is still a “word in transition,” McCulloch says, signifying “amusement, irony and even passive aggression.” It can temper a statement that might otherwise sound confrontational (“what are you doing out so late lol”) or gently poke fun at someone (“good morning lol” to a friend who woke up at noon).

McCulloch is such a disarming writer — lucid, friendly, unequivocally excited about her subject — that I began to marvel at the flexibility of the online language she describes, with its numerous shades of subtlety. Emotions can be quickly and efficiently conveyed by the “sarcasm tilde” (“isn’t that ~special”) and “expressive lengthening” (“yesssss” and “bothhhh”). A lot of innuendo can be contained in the tiny emoji of an eggplant.

But being attuned to such fine gradations of meaning can make for extreme sensitivity, too. A Full Internet Person might read annoyance or anger into a sentence that ends with a period. I was surprised to learn that the dot-dot-dot of ellipsis in emails and texts, which I usually associated with a simple (and harmless) pause in thought, is “especially perilous.” Younger people indicate a simple pause with a line break or a new message; they “infer emotional meaning” from an ellipsis because they wonder what it’s doing there, and what it might be insinuating.

Reflecting on these changes in “expressive typography,” McCulloch is fully celebratory: “I’d gladly accept the decline of standards that were arbitrary and elitist in the first place in favor of being able to better connect with my fellow humans.” She sees internet language as offering us a chance “to write not for power, but for love.” But it’s hard to look at online discourse today and fail to notice that some people are writing for hate. The “in-group vocabulary” of internet language and memes isn’t just inclusive; its ability to induce a “rush of fellow-feeling” often relies on excluding an out-group, too.

Formal language can be chilly and impersonal, but it abides by explicit rules and can therefore be taught, rather than relying on fuzzier paths of transmission. As McCulloch herself observes, the formality is designed to appeal to a general audience — something that used to sound basic and boring but seems to be in awfully short supply these days.

“One type of writing hasn’t replaced the other,” McCulloch writes, taking care to emphasize that the situation between formal language and internet language isn’t zero-sum. She’s immersed in online life, where she sees the future looking emancipatory and bright. “There’s space, in this glorious linguistic web, for you,” she insists. I hope she’s right lol.

The internet has made languages more accessible than ever before. Learn a new one and take the Rosetta Stone free trial.

By Jennifer Szalai ©2019 The New York Times

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