Changing Our Language?
'To Google' has become a universally understood
verb and many countries are developing their own internet slang. But is the web
changing language and is everyone up to speed?
In April 2010 the informal online banter of the
internet-savvy collided with the traditional and austere language of the court
room. Christopher Poole, founder of anarchic image message board 4Chan, had
been called to testify during the trial of the man accused of hacking into US politician
Sarah Palin's e-mail account. During the questioning he was asked to define a catalogue of internet
slang that would be familiar to many online, but which was seemingly
lost on the lawyers.
At one point during the exchange, Mr Poole was
asked to define "rickrolling". "Rickroll is a meme or internet kind of trend that started
on 4chan where users - it's basically a bait and switch. Users link you to a
video of Rick Astley performing Never Gonna Give You Up," said Mr Poole.
"And the term "rickroll"
- you said it tries to make people go to a site where they think it is going be
one thing, but it is a video of Rick Astley,
right?," asked the lawyer.
"He was some kind of singer?"
"It's a joke?"
The internet prank was just one of several terms
including "lurker", "troll" and
"caps" that Mr Poole was asked to explain to a seemingly baffled
court. But that is hardly a surprise, according to David Crystal, honorary
professor of linguistics at the
For English speakers there are cult websites
devoted to cult dialects - "LOLcat" - a
phonetic and deliberately grammatically incorrect caption that accompanies a
picture of a cat, and "Leetspeak" in which
some letters are replaced by numbers which stem from programming code. "There
are about a dozen of these games cooked up by a crowd of geeks who, like
anybody, play language games," said Professor Crystal. "They are all
clever little developments used by a very small number of people - thousands
rather than millions. They are fashionable at the moment but will they be
around in 50 years' time? I would be very surprised."
One language change that has definitely been
overhyped is so-called text speak, a mixture of often vowel-free abbreviations
and acronyms, says Prof Crystal. "People say that text messaging is a new
language and that people are filling texts with abbreviations - but when you
actually analyse it you find they're not," he said. In fact only 10% of
the words in an average text are not written in full, he added.
There is no doubt that technology has had a
"significant impact" on language in the last 10 years, says Ms Fiona McPherson,
senior editor of the new words group at the Oxford English Dictionary. Some
entirely new words like the verb 'to google', or look
something up on a search engine, and the noun 'app', used to describe
programmes for smartphones (not yet in the OED), have
either been recently invented or come into popular use.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that
language is changing because when you look closer, new online jargon still tends
to have its roots in already existing words and phrases. Ms McPherson points
out that the phrase "social networking" debuted in the OED in 1973.
Its definition - "the use or establishment of social networks or
connections" - has only comparatively recently been linked to
internet-based activities. "These are words that have arisen out of the
phenomenon rather than being technology words themselves," she added. "Wireless
in the 1950s meant a radio. It's very rare to talk about a radio now as a
wireless, unless you're of a particular generation or trying to be ironic. The
word has taken on a whole new significance."
However, for Prof Crystal it is still too early to
fully evaluate the impact of technology on language."The
whole phenomenon is very recent - the entire technology we're talking about is
only 20 years old as far as the popular mind is concerned." Sometimes the
worst thing that can happen to a word is that it becomes too mainstream,
he argues. "Remember a few years ago, West Indians started talking about 'bling'. Then the white middle classes started talking about
it and they stopped using it. "That's typical of slang - it happens with
internet slang as well."
- Last updated on the 16 August 2010 at 09:01
Zoe Kleinman Technology
reporter, BBC News