What happened?

In her book Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch argues that the kind of language we use online should be embraced as an enrichment of (the English) language, rather than a degradation. More conservative takes on online communication tend to focus on the use of abbreviations, the lack of proper grammar and the substitution of text by emojis as signs that our language is eroding and that younger generations are losing the ability to read and write more complex (i.e. professional)pieces of text. McCulloch, by contrast, argues that the new, informal grammar of online conversations actually addresses the need to add some kind of subtext in order to prevent misunderstandings, which would otherwise require far lengthier texts (or non-verbal communication in a face-to-face conversation).

What does this mean?

Written language was initially developed for purposes of administration (e.g. taxes and regulations) and, later on, mostly used for one-way communication (e.g. religious writings or literature). Except for occasional letters, postcards or telegrams, direct communication between people, i.e. conversation, had always been spoken and, until the invention of the telephone, relied on face-to-face contact, to which all sorts of non-verbal communication could be added. Today, this has changed and we have come to rely on text for direct communication, even though traditional language and grammar are not really suited for that.Abbreviations, emoticons, emoji’s, gifs, but also the use of multiple exclamation or question marks actually add depth to otherwise rather superficial texts. Even something as simple as the period has gained significance as an unnecessary and, exactly because of that, passive-aggressive addition (e.g. “ok.”).

What’s next?

McCulloch describes language as humanity’s “most spectacular opensource project, signifying how she views language as dynamic and everchanging as a result of cultural and technological developments. It seems obvious that language is evolving faster today than in the past, as our new technological means call for, and enable, new forms and rules to arise at a great pace. This implies that significant linguistic changes can take place during a single generation and that intergenerational communication will be increasingly difficult in the future. Still, online language competes mostly with spoken language and not so much with traditional writing. The latter, e.g. in science and literature, will not change as fast, simply because there is far less need for change.