Digital English: What even are words anymore?

If you have read Carolyne Larrington’s article Language Evolution, you will already know a lot about how language evolves, and in particular about how English has evolved over the last several centuries. But these days, language is changing faster than ever before—how many times have your parents (or even an older sibling) told you that they have no idea what you’re saying?

New modes of communication

Since computers started appearing in homes in the 1980s, we have learned to communicate with each other in entirely new ways. The most direct effect of this on language is the creation of new words to describe our new modes of communication. A great example of this is the shortening of the original electronic mail to E-mail, which has since contracted entirely to email.

Much of the language around new technology uses metaphors like this, which express new concepts in terms of familiar ones. Some other examples are desktop, folders and cloud. The meaning of words like these has shifted drastically in the past few decades, and this is still happening: we are constantly developing new shifts to describe new technologies and innovations. If you ask your grandparents what a story is, they are more likely to define this word as a narrative or anecdote rather than a short video you watch on Instagram or Snapchat—this is an indication of change in progress.

English as a global lingua franca

Because so many computing advances and social media networks have been made in English, the words we use to talk about our digital world also tend to be in English. This has accelerated the development of English as a global lingua franca, or a shared language used to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages. Other languages have borrowed a number of words from English to describe the digital world: an Instagram story is likely to be a story no matter where you are in the world.

Throughout most of human history, the people you encountered and the community you were part of were determined by where you lived, the language spoken there, and your age, gender, class and other such characteristics. But with the increased mobility of the modern world, and with the advent of computers and the internet, people have been able to connect across greater distances in increasingly convenient ways.

Given this increased level of connectivity, people can now encounter speakers of other languages more easily than ever before. This digital mobility has also contributed to English’s role as a global lingua franca: communities on the internet are now shaped more by shared interests than geography, making for much more linguistically diverse communities. This means that not only do speakers interact with other languages more often, but the languages they do speak are influenced more and more by other languages. This is something you may have experienced yourself: if you or your close friends speak a different language at home than at school, you’re likely to find those languages influencing each other both in your everyday speech and in the way you use language in digital contexts (like texting or social media).

New ways of expressing meaning

But it is not just the need for a global lingua franca that has driven the development of English in recent times. Before the internet, we usually encountered language in either spoken or written forms – in conversation with other people, in books, in films and so on. But in the digital world, we use language in entirely new ways: trying to convey emotions in writing leads us to using all caps or manipulating grammatical structures (such as in doge memes). Our friends understand perfectly well when we text them a string of emojis. Memes originally relied on humorous interactions between images and text, but can now be any form of internet-based cultural reference, which one linguist has argued is reminiscent of folklore.

These new ways of expressing meaning work because we as speakers assign meaning to language. Words don’t inherently mean things in and of themselves; it is only the agreement of a community of speakers that gives a word the power to mean something. Young people are particular drivers of language change in this regard – because they adopt new technologies and social media more quickly and holistically than older people, they are the ones generating new meanings for words like story.

With the internet, we have developed new communicative units that serve a similar meaning-making purpose to words: emojis, memes, hashtags and more. The way these units are put together (into Instagram stories, YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, etc.) is similar to the way words are put together into sentences. In this way, we are using the internet to blur the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as language.

And the evolution of English hasn’t stopped there: the internet has birthed a variety of new language games that play with sounds and syllables (Benedict Cumberbatch memes are a great example). We now say “lol” and “omg” out loud. The search-engine based structure of the internet itself has even led to the linguistic ploy of Voldemorting, a means of confusing search engines through synonyms and misdirection. These are all examples of language crossing the boundaries between the traditional and the digital worlds, and in the process changing how we use language to interact with those worlds.

So what will English be like in the future? With all the changes and developments underway now, it is hard to say, but what is clear is that language has never evolved as quickly and dramatically as it is evolving now. Many people find this a cause for concern, but others are rejoicing in the creativity and identity-affirming freedom this allows speakers all across the world.

Further reading

Your task

The American Dialect Society, an organisation studying varieties of American English, chooses an annual ‘word of the year’. Here are a few recent examples of the ADS’s words of the year:

YearWord of the yearNotes
2013becauseintroducing a noun, adjective, or other part of speech: ‘because reasons’ or ‘because awesome’
2014#blacklivesmatterin response to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement
2015they (singular)‘they’ used as a singular third-person pronoun (‘They’ also became the ADS’s word of the decade earlier this year)
2017fake newsin response to the 2016 US presidential election
2019pronounsreferring to personal pronouns; for example: ‘my personal pronouns are she/her/hers’
Recent examples of the ADS’s words of the year

You can see that these are quite different to the words chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary, as discussed by Carolyne Larrington. What can you conclude about the American Dialect Society’s approach to choosing a ‘word of the year’, especially in terms of what it means for something to be defined as a word?

For some further thoughts on this topic to help you develop your answer:

What counts as a word?

Maren Fichter, Inspire Project Support Officer
Maren Fichter, Inspire Project Support Officer

Maren Fichter, Inspire Project Support Officer

I run the Inspire Digital website, manage our social media and web presence and provide administrative support for the Inspire Programme. I completed my MPhil in Linguistics in 2018, specialising in identity and community building in online video—yes, this means you can study memes at university!