How is language evolving on the Internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.
A recent study found that people who use internet slang are actually better at standard English too. It sounds surprising, but Jacob Eisenstein, the lead author and an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, explained that “Non-standard English is not a question of ability, but of reserving standard English for the right social situations. In this sense, heavy social media users have an especially nuanced understanding of language, since they maintain multiple linguistic systems.”
Here are seven ways that communication on the internet is making our language more dynamic and flexible.
One kind of hashtag, the index hashtag, lets people from all over the world talk about a shared topic of interest. The other kind of hashtag, the commentary hashtag, lets us express our feelings on two levels, a topic plus a commentary or backchannel. And interestingly, a recent study has shown that people tend to use more standard language in tweets with hashtags, and more informal, regional language in tweets with @-mentions, showing that we understand how to adjust our language for different audiences.
2. INDICATING FORMALITY
The judicious use of internet slang can indicate informality and comfort. The choice of "u" instead of "you" or rlly instead of really can tell the reader that you're comfortable and relaxed, like putting on your comfy sweatpants rather than a nice outfit.
3. SPEAKING IN PICTURES
It's never been easier to add pictures of various kinds to our writing, from emoji to reaction gifs to photos and video clips we take ourselves, especially on picture-centered social apps like Snapchat and Instagram. In real life, we're not disembodied voices, so why should we be so online?
We've ingeniously adapted the like/star/heart/+1 symbols to indicate not just liking but also the end of a back-and-forth conversational thread on social media. When you've had a somewhat asynchronous conversation on Facebook or Twitter or another social network, sometimes it's dying out but you don't want to leave the other person wondering whether you've run out of things to say or just haven't seen their most recent post. A like, star, or appropriate other symbol indicates that you've seen it and you still feel positive about the conversation, but that you don't have anything left to say—without the bother of a formal sign-off.
6. MAPPING DIALECTS
When you post a tweet, you have the option to indicate precisely where you're posting it from using your phone's GPS. Linguists have used these geotagged tweets to map who's using which forms of language where. Sometimes, this confirms what we already know: Speakers of Southern American English and African American English tend to pronounce the word "caught" differently from the word "cot"—and they also spell them differently on Twitter. Sometimes, this teaches us something new: such as that people in New York use "and all that" way more than the rest of the country, or that different regions prefer different swear words.
People who communicate with others a lot online simply have a lot more opportunities to practice writing than we've ever had. Before it became normal to text, email, and post on social media, most people stopped writing anything longer than a grocery list or a birthday card after they'd finished school. Now we're writing constantly, and as this XKCD comic points out, you'd expect people who are always casually throwing a baseball around to be much better at the formal game than people who never play catch: why should casual writing be any different?