Internet Slang

Is Technology 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 University of Bangor, who says that new colloquialisms spread like wildfire amongst groups on the net. "The internet is an amazing medium for languages," he told BBC News. "Language itself changes slowly but the internet has speeded up the process of those changes so you notice them more quickly." People using word play to form groups and impress their peers is a fairly traditional activity, he added. "It's like any badge of ability, if you go to a local skatepark you see kids whose expertise is making a skateboard do wonderful things. "Online you show how brilliant you are by manipulating the language of the internet." But does that mean that the English language is really undergoing a radical online change?


Word play

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."


Txt Spk

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 GMT

Zoe Kleinman Technology reporter, BBC News