clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The distracted boyfriend meme (but for emoji).
Christina Animashaun/Vox

Filed under:

Is the internet killing language? LOL, no.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch says Twitter banter and text-speak are signs of an evolving language — and that’s good.

The Highlight by Vox logo

Texting, posting, and emailing has become a key part of how we communicate in our lives and relationships, so much so that it’s fundamentally changing language and communication. According to linguist Gretchen McCulloch, the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language and co-host of the podcast Lingthusiasm, it’s making us better writers, speakers, and communicators.

So all our SMHs and Kim Kardashian crying memes aren’t eviscerating the English language? Tell that to the English teachers of the world — and the mansplainers on Tinder.

“Language is humanity’s most spectacular open-source project,” writes McCulloch, who studies and analyzes the patterns of internet language. “Just as we find things on the internet by following links from one place to another, language spreads and disseminates through our conversations and interactions.”

Today’s digital natives are expected to be bilingual in both formal English and informal internet-speak — and know when it’s appropriate to use them (like when you’re emailing your boss versus texting your crush).

From words and acronyms to emoji and GIFs, people today have a wide range of tools in their arsenal to express online what they’re thinking and feeling. If you’re meeting a friend for happy hour, sending a GIF of Betty White swirling a glass of wine can often capture your excitement better than words can. Hate Mondays? Posting a meme of Grumpy Cat (RIP) can instantly relay your disdain. Those fluent in internet-speak can also play with punctuation, capitalization, even spacing to convey emotional nuance and tone of voice. Words can now be altogether replaced with emblems and icons, which helps explain the popularity of emoji and GIFs in our online conversations.

All of this helps enliven our social interactions, and the fluidity of language is actually its biggest strength. “I mean, fashion can change, why can’t language?” asks McCulloch. “Linguists are generally very positive about language evolution, and it’s unfortunate that this message hasn’t been conveyed to broader society as much because we’re still dealing with a history of people worshipping Latin.”

I spoke with McCulloch to better understand how our text and Twitter banter is influencing the way we communicate on and offline. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Megan McDonough

Some people believe the internet is leading to the demise of the English language. You argue that it is doing the opposite, and, in fact, is making us more dynamic and flexible communicators. How would you respond to skeptics who worry the internet is ruining the written word for future generations?

Gretchen McCulloch

Language has changed and is always changing. There’s not one right way to communicate. We don’t speak the way Shakespeare did, and Shakespeare didn’t speak the way Chaucer did.

Megan McDonough

In your book, you explain that internet language is dependent on one’s age group, when they were exposed to the internet and with whom they were communicating.

Gretchen McCulloch

Yes, it’s really interesting to look at how different people [of different ages and eras] are using language on the internet. There’s a misperception that if people are using language differently, then someone must be right, but that’s not true. There’s not one right way of using language online. We can use language differently, and it can actually help us better understand each other.

For example, a user from [one] generation may use periods at the end of every sentence. A person from another generation may interpret this as passive aggression. You can write the way you want to talk, but we need to have some communication about the means in which you are expressing it to avoid communication difficulties and misinterpretations.

Megan McDonough

Have you found in your research that friends or family members tend to adjust their language to mimic each other’s speech patterns, styles, or preferences?

Gretchen McCulloch

Anecdotally, I certainly do. If people use emoji, then I’ll use emoji. If they use exclamation marks, then I’ll use exclamation marks. I’ll sometimes go back in my previous correspondence with somebody and see if we were on “Hi” terms or “Hey” terms. I try to reply to people in the spirit that they’re in, because why not? It’s more comfortable and I think you get along with people better that way.

It has also been found in research by [Columbia University researcher] Michelle McSweeney: People tend to match styles in conversation in text messages and will latch onto certain features, but not others. For example, emoji. If you send a bunch of emoji hearts in a conversation, people will often send the same sequence back. However, they won’t budge on other features, like acronyms. If you use LMAO instead of LOL, you’re going to keep using the acronym you prefer.

Megan McDonough

You write that teenage girls play an especially important role as language disruptors throughout the history of language. [In her book, McCulloch says young women overwhelmingly lead language trends, from uptalk (rising pitch and intonation at the end of sentences) to the use of the word “like” to introduce quotations (I was like, “Oh, my god, Becky, look at her butt”).]

How and why do women — particularly teens — help lead the way with language?

Gretchen McCulloch

Women are on the bleeding edge of a lot of linguistic innovation. Some people believe it is related to their social position. They are more likely to have a broader network of people, or you’re more likely used to paying more attention to how you talk because your choices are more policed. Some people also point to the fact that women are still disproportionately likely to be caregivers for young children. So even if men are creating more innovation, if they’re not interacting with young children as much, it’s less likely to be carried on. It’s probably something that has multiple factors and is still an open area of linguistic research.

Megan McDonough

There are expressive tools used in informal writing, like letter repetition (heyyy or yaaas) and multiple exclamation points (omg!!!). Can you talk about why these quirks have caught on fire on mediums like text and social media?

Gretchen McCulloch

I think expressive tools for informal writing are a really important way to convey attention and context as to what we are saying to each other, like, for example, sarcasm. Conveying irony in writing is tremendously important. There are philosophic proposals that date back to the 1500s requesting better ways to convey irony in writing, but they never caught on, because it turns out people don’t read Rousseau to figure out how to capture irony.

What needed to happen in order for irony punctuation like ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ to take off was that people needed to have a collective response — it couldn’t be just one person coming up with something — to signify meaning and double meaning. If you convey enthusiasm through sparkles and emoji, or that something is important through capitals or quotation marks, it can now be subverted to convey ironic enthusiasm or ironic importance. Allowing things to take on double meaning is what really paved the way for ironic punctuation, and now we have so much of it.

Megan McDonough

And that’s when tools, like emoji and GIFs, can be incredibly useful. They can help contextualize meaning and indicate intention.

Gretchen McCulloch

Exactly. Now there’s a whole range of tools, images, and punctuation to make it clear that you’re joking, or that you’re being playful.

Megan McDonough

Is this why you think certain emoji — like hands and faces — have taken off in popularity?

Gretchen McCulloch

Yeah, I think so, because hands draw on resources that we already have and use to convey and clarify our intentions face to face. While it’s great to have a whole bunch of plant, vegetable, and animal emoji to illustrate what you’re saying, symbols that offer deliberate cues to the feelings, emotions, and intentions behind what we’re saying are even more important to us than captioning a photo of a dog with an emoji of a dog.

Megan McDonough

That reminds me of the ever-popular eggplant and peach emojis, and their versatile meanings. I recently read that only 7 percent of Apple users use the peach icon to refer to the actual fruit. How do linguists feel about the adaptability of these emblems, and to what extent can they become a replacement for language?

Gretchen McCulloch

Emoji are interesting, and you can definitely use them to communicate with, but not everything we communicate with is considered language. I like the analogy of emoji as gestures because I think it explains a lot of the different ways people use them. Sometimes we used them alongside our words to give clarity as to what they mean.

Megan McDonough

Another popular trend on social media is to write in all lowercase. What are the purposes of abandoning standard capitalization on platforms like Tumblr and Twitter?

Gretchen McCulloch

Early on, when most people’s typing was happening on desktop or laptop computers, the easy way to type was to just ignore the shift key and put everything in lower case. It had an anti-authoritarian connotation of being lazy and taking less effort.

But that changed with the rise of smartphones [between 2006 and 2013]. Predictive keyboards started capitalizing the beginning of sentences and any proper nouns that were in their dictionaries, and suddenly it took more effort to put something in lowercase. But lowercase still retained this sort of antiauthoritarian connotation from the early days when it took less effort and people were not respecting the authority of the shift key, if you will.

So it’s now taken on this extra layer of meaning, which is “I’m not making a large effort.” If I say everything very formally [with standard capitalization], then maybe that means I am standing on ceremony, am easily offended, and will be offended if you do, too. Whereas if I type in a way that’s more casual and informal, I can seem friendlier, more approachable and down-to-earth.

Megan McDonough

One of the most interesting observations in your chapter on internet memes is that the most popular and copied memes are often the least professional-looking and most unpolished. Can you explain this phenomenon and why certain memes, like LOLcats and Doge, are replicated online?

Gretchen McCulloch

Linguist Limor Shifman did a study of YouTube videos that spawned remixes and remakes compared with videos that had the same number of views but few or no imitations. Her research found that the more professional-looking YouTube videos were less likely to be copied. I think it is very readily applicable to other types of memes, whether that’s visual memes or linguistic styles, that invite active involvement and make it easy and approachable for others to participate in the creative phenomenon.

A lot of formalized creativity — music, books, art — can be intimidating for a beginner. I just wrote a book, and I can assure you, it was intimidating! Most people don’t see the patchwork, the edits, the back-and-forth that goes into making a professionalized creative thing look polished, but by doing creative things that are less polished, it’s a more inviting way of participating in them.

Megan McDonough

You write that one benefit from internet language and the decentralization of online media is that original creators become more visible online and “Columbusing” — or the trend of white people appropriating nonwhite culture for themselves without recognizing its true origins — can be more readily identified. For example, how words and phrases like “bae,” “throwing shade,” and “on fleek” have been appropriated from African Americans into broader American pop culture.

While Columbusing can be more readily identified and attributed, do social sites like Twitter and increased visibility also lead to greater linguistic appropriation?

Gretchen McCulloch

I think that’s a really interesting question. You know, it’s easier to kind of wander into a subculture, and less obvious that you don’t necessarily belong there. I think it is generally good to be following people who have experiences that are not yours to learn more about how people who aren’t like you live in the world. But one of the things I didn’t want to do in the book was do a detailed investigation of Black Twitter as a white person. I didn’t think it was my place to do.

I know a number of people who have stopped using the clapping hands emoji between individual words because it’s a recognition that was appropriated from black culture. I don’t have statistics on the prevalence of this happening before and after the internet because appropriation from African Americans has been happening, you know, for hundreds of years.

Megan McDonough

Do you believe the reader of the future will one day be taught internet language in school, like Shakespeare or Latin?

Gretchen McCulloch

I think that as long as the internet remains a place where people are hanging out and spending their time, there will internet slang. But do I think the children of the future will eventually need to be taught the way we’re talking now? Absolutely. ;)

Climate

Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future

Life

How to talk to a loved one about their health

Life

Why do we keep tabs on people we can’t stand?

View all stories in The Highlight