Internet-Speak: The New Language

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The internet moves at a dizzying speed…around the clock…all the time. It stands to reason that when a book is published that everyone needs to read, it becomes an instant New York Times bestseller.

This book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch, was named a Best Book of 2019 by TIME, Amazon and The Washington Post. Plus, it was named a Wired magazine Must-Read Book of the Summer. One reviewer posted that “Gretchen McCulloch is the internet’s favorite linguist, and this book is essential reading…her work is like suddenly being able to see the matrix.”

The success of this book stems from the very fact that the internet is literally (all pun intended) changing the English language. McCulloch explains how the internet is influencing the way we communicate with each other and how initial social media experiences have shaped individual preferences, such as the use of emojis, memes and irony punctuation, to name just a few.
Think about your internet behavior. Do you type in all caps when you are angry or super excited? How does your message recipient distinguish?

As McCulloch explains, “The old rules are these top-down, ‘here’s how you use a semicolon’ type of thing. The new rules are about: How are other people going to interpret your tone of voice? The old rules are about using language to demonstrate intellectual superiority, and the new rules are about using language to create connection between people.”

In addition, there are differences between how different groups interpret internet language. Older and younger people can see the same acronym but attach separate meanings to it. She uses the term LOL for example, and says for the very youngest people, there’s no literal meaning left to LOL at all. She says it’s a filler that “indicates there’s some sort of double meaning to be found. If I say something that could be interpreted as rude or hostile like, ‘I hate you’ but if I say ‘I hate you LOL,’ now it’s a joke.” But for the oldest internet users, it most likely just means Laugh Out Loud.
Instead of speaking to each other on the phone or in person, we are talking to people via text messaging or emailing. It’s fairly hard to discern a tone of voice, perhaps criticism or unbridled joy, from a text. As a result, miscommunication is abundant. This is one reason McCulloch wrote her book. She believes that having better understanding among multiple generations will help to avoid hurt feelings, hostility and even aggression.

Prior to our constant use of the internet to communicate with each other, we were accustomed to reading mainly formal prose from trained journalists or authors, or literature at our workplace, all written from a proper English dictionary-style language. It was edited and filtered for correct grammar and punctuation, standardized for mass production.

But the internet gave rise to an extremely informal and, in most cases, an individualistic use of language. It’s no longer necessary to spell correctly or end a sentence with proper punctuation because it’s become acceptable to us.

Everyone is an author and a journalist on the internet. Just look at the number of blogs circulating with a plethora of voices never heard. Since it began, it seems as if the internet has created an outpouring of everyone talking at the same time. But they aren’t talking in a homogenized fashion like they’ve been taught in school. They are speaking out informally from their own minds and hearts, creating a whole new world of viewpoints, ideas and solutions, using a whole new language. And yes, gossip, hurt and violence have found an open stage too. Internet writing, says McCulloch, is “unedited, unfiltered and beautifully mundane.”

One of the most interesting trends that McCulloch found while doing her book research was the continued evolution of keysmash, a random string of letters and symbols typed out on a keyboard or touchscreen, usually signaling intense emotion. Most people smash their fingers hard against the keyboard when they do it, but the author found that people have specific keysmashing styles. They may use the same row of keys or always smash the keys left to right or vice versa. She also notes that keysmashing is changing as we move from computers to phones because of the keyboard layout and size. She even found that people would review their keysmashing strokes and change them because they didn’t look right!

To state that the English language is changing sounds almost like an understatement. Internet-Speak is here to stay and linguists such as McCulloch will continue to discern what we are all trying to say. ■

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