Language Change: Social Networking

When we see new words and phrases spring up across networking sites, we may at first feel alienated. We’ve only just started to notice the new words coming in. How and why do these words enter our English Language? 

Technology is one of the main factors of language change. Think about a mobile phone at the beginning of the 21st century, and think of one now, more than a decade later. The amount we can do with a phone has become massive and the overall products have evolved. The same thing has happened with our language, it’s just changed to accommodate the needs of more people via many various methods.

To ‘Google’ something now fits snugly alongside our language with many more traditional words. What’s happened here is that a noun that people use (Google) has undergone a process changing it from one word class into another which here, is a conversion.

This process allows many new ideas and inventions, which may or may not have been intended to be used as a verb, to gain a new lease of life. It’s as simple as someone who is unsure of what to describe, and creates a verb from it. ‘I went ahead and Googled it’, would be a great example.

It isn’t just our language though. A bit of background research reveals that this is evident in Ukraine, where “padronkavskiy zhargon” has come to life on internet forums and the like – in which words are spelled out phonetically. Computer slang is developing pretty fast in Ukraine, with the Mac and Linux communities even having their own word for people who prefer Microsoft Windows – віндузятники (which literally transcribed means “the Windowers”, but the ending creates derogatory term). The dreaded force-quit process of pressing ‘Control, Alt, Delete’ is known as Дуля, which is an old-fashioned Ukrainian gesture using two fingers and a thumb – something similar to giving a finger in Anglo-Saxon cultures. So it’s like telling somebody to get lost.

Of course, there is also text speak. This ‘new language’ which is mainly notable for it’s vowelless words and huge range of acronyms, has been attacked and throttled by many a prescriptivist (that is, someone who criticises the language) when the majority of research centered around it doesn’t claim it to be negative at all. In fact, approximately 10% of a text’s language is acronyms or abbreviations, and the rest is grammatically correct. Which means that texting like this can only be beneficial. It became mainstream for its time saving and even money saving purposes, but it also shows the ability to adapt your language for multiple usages (or upward and downward convergence) which demonstrates far greater intelligence than that of someone who has to stick to one language they know.

This is however, not similar to using incorrect grammar across social networking platforms. The increasingly popular practice of using standard English and not slang or non standard grammar is a popular one. Here the notion across Facebook and YouTube is to assume an authority amongst other friends or members, and seek overt prestige, by correcting them on their ill use of grammar or syntax. For example, the (lack of) use of commas is important in saving the lives of those you most care about. ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ or what you hopefully meant, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ is a popular example here. If this was posted as a status update, it wouldn’t take long for this to be torn apart by the ‘friends’ who want only to prove you wrong and display their intelligence, especially around a teenage audience. Regardless, it’s good to see people actively seeking to improve understanding of the language, and this helps improve education and literacy, although at its lowest level.

One of the other big factors in language change is the number of new words that spring up because of the inventions that need naming. The big example here is the Apple range of products. Back in 2001, they kicked off their range of portable music players with the iPod. However, they took the prefix ‘i’ from their range of computers, iMac and iBook, where the ‘i’ originally stood for ‘internet’, and added it to a whole host of nouns. They went on to create an entire sub-brand from the ‘i’ prefix, attaching it to iPads, iPhones and iTunes among many others, which makes the Apple range uniquely identifiable across the world. This language process is named affixation because it allows the user to add beginnings and endings to words to create different meanings.

Stealing words to create new meanings is one that crops up from time to time in helping technology shape the language of the internet. ‘Tweet’ for example, is the sort of noise expected from a bird, early in the morning. It now more commonly refers to an update message on Twitter. Through mass awareness and more popular usage, it has slipped into our language alongside other definitions of the same dynamic verb (there’s that jargon again). This process is called a back formation, as it was reformed for a new meaning under the guise of a pre-existing word.

As you can see from all these various processes, the internet and technology have quite a profound effect on the language we live and breathe each and every day. Perhaps it’s through the fast ability we have in being able to share our new words, consciously or subconsciously , and the rapid passing through multiple communities. The speed and longevity that new words have, and can be retained for is astounding, and should be welcomed with open arms, rather than suppressed by your inner prescriptivist.


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