Drawing on his latest book, Netymology, popular technology speaker and expert on digital culture, Tom Chatfield, shares his thoughts on how technology usage is evolving our language for the better. Chartwell are proud to represent Tom for speaker bookings at events and conferences worldwide, simply get in touch for Tom’s availability, topics and fees.
Over the last few decades, digital media have seen a democratisation of written language unprecedented in human history. Via the more than two billion internet-connected computers and seven billion mobile phones in the world, we are all both authors and audiences – our daily discourse playing out via millions of words typed onto screens.
For some, this is a process where more inexorably means worse: a degeneration of written language into a shadow of past glories. Yet this misses the point. For alongside their loosening and cheapening of words, our young tools have combined the instant and the infinitely reproducible – and are steadily blurring the bounds between private utterance and public performance. It’s a context within which even the most laughable-seeming simplicities conceal possibilities that demand our attention.
Consider the complexities lurking behind just six letters, in the form of two iconic contemporary initialisms: OMG (oh my God!) and LOL (laughing out loud). Both took up their official places in the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2011 – but boast considerably longer pedigrees. In the case of OMG, this dates back to nothing less than a 1917 letter from Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher to Winston Churchill, in which the former exclaimed “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis – O.M.G.(Oh! My God!) – Shower it on the Admiralty!” LOL, used to express amusement, is a rather younger coinage, dating to the pre-web Bulletin Board Systems of the early 1980s. It’s also, though, a more intriguing one, representing one of the earliest examples of a very-particular trend of digital communications: self-dramatization.
As linguists such as David Crystal have observed, the phrase “laughing out loud” is far from a straightforward description. Someone who types “LOL” – or picks out a laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji on their smartphone’s keyboard – is rarely, if ever, literally laughing out loud. Rather, they’re framing their words within a kind of stage direction: a commentary designed to communicate the conversational emotions that writing doesn’t traditionally convey in the absence of a human face.
It’s a simple innovation that reflects a central contemporary fact. Typing onto screens is becoming a dominant driving force behind language – and this has brought vast ingenuity to bear on turning typed language into a medium as emotive and dynamic as spoken language itself.
Even emoji are only the tip of this particular iceberg. If you want a supreme example of imparting emotional shading to rapidly-typed exchanges, look to the ubiquitous hashtag: born on Twitter in 2007, but soon proliferating elsewhere. Hashtags also speak to a desire to make online interactions as messily, passionately human as possible; but their possibilities for layering performance, politics and in-jokes trump any image. Not for nothing did the UK’s high court label Twitter a “conversation without speech” in a 2012 judgement.
Perhaps most intriguingly, they have also spread back from the screen into our spoken moments, reversing the traditional momentum of language change. To hear someone end a spoken sentence with the words “hashtag first world problems” is truly to be living in a digital age (rough translation: “I want you to know that I know that this thing could only be perceived as a problem by someone privileged; nevertheless, insulated by self-awareness, I am moaning about it.”). If you want to take the pulse of our times with any accuracy, pay close attention to the activity that consumes more human time than any other online: not-so-idle chat.
Dr Tom Chatfield is a British author of six bestselling books, broadcaster and tech philosopher. He has advised many of the world’s leading technology firms, and is currently a Visiting Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute. The latest edition of his book “Netymology: a linguistic celebration of the digital world” was published by Quercus US on 2nd August.
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