Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=201916
Story Retrieval Date: 6/19/2013 9:19:20 AM CST
Are you confused by words such as “LOL” or “tweet”? Are you #perturbed when #people use #’s on #certainwords? Get used to it. It turns out many of these phrases, acronyms, emoticons ;), all products of our social media age, are becoming part of accepted usage of language.
“Social media, email, all of our communication is faster today than it formerly was,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “It used to take a word 20 to 50 years to be put in the dictionary. It evolves more quickly because our communication is faster now.”
With new social media comes new vocabulary. As more and more people began to take to the web to spout personal ideas, the online community christened their work “weblogs” or, more commonly called “blogs.” Rapid-fire online messaging created a frenzy of acronyms: LOL (laughing out loud), OMG (oh my god), and BFF (best friends forever). At the same time, institutions such as Facebook gave new meaning to words including “wall” or “poke,” as did Twitter for “tweet.”
Sometimes “it’s a problem for newcomers,” said Xiaoju Zheng, a Northwestern University linguistics doctoral student whose dissertation focuses on Twitter. She pointed out that even when someone gains knowledge of the lingo, new words and even combinations of old words are formed all the time. For instance, the word “twug” is a morphological blend of the words twitter and hug.
So why do certain words used online catch on while others vanish into the abyss of vocabulary?
Celebrities, public figures or popular groups that others seek to emulate may inspire these trends, said Brice Roberts, an Ohio State University linguistics doctoral student. “On the other hand, there have been studies where people have used a certain word to assert themselves against a certain group.”
Many words don’t pick up popularity. Noshir Contractor, who teaches behavioral sciences at Northwestern, cited the example “nexted.”
Internet users “could either talk to a person or click on next and connect at random to some other person,” he said. “People began to describe people as being ‘nexted.’” The word was popular for about six to nine months, he said, but quickly faded. A Google search of “nexted” brings up few hits.
Trendy words are not necessarily being coined by brainy computer users, but also by everyday people.
One of Roberts’ students at Ohio State brought up the fact that she and her friends had created new symbols. While many Internet users use <3 to create the symbol of a heart (“I <3 you”), this student and her friends used <4 or <5 or <6 to express new levels of liking and loving.
Roberts believes that people are finding individual ways to express themselves, inventing acronyms, phrases and even emoticons, symbols used to make facial expressions such as : - ) or :’( . Emoticons might have become popular to prevent misunderstandings over emails or online messaging when body language is visually absent, he said.
So while many might think emoticons and acronyms are destroying our language, in essence, some say they keeping our network linked.
“During the Industrial Revolution, people began to talk about the world as a well-oiled machine. Those kinds of words that didn’t exist before this began in a lot of different contexts,” Contractor said. Additionally in the 1960s, a time of struggle between old ways versus the new, the world began being viewed as a living being. “Society began to be seen as a living system that needed nurturing.” This is best seen in 1960s language of hippies and commune movements.
Today, with the Internet allowing us to Skype with soldiers in the Middle East, or make friends with distant cousins, the metaphor has become “the network.”
“Because the Internet is about globalization,” he said, “English in particular has become the dominant language of the Internet.” In 2012, nearly 537 million Internet users speak in English online.
In France in particular, various committees and organizations have formed in an effort to preserve the French language from English influences. The Forum Francophone International, formed in 2001, works to preserve French from becoming reduced to a “local dialect.”
Despite what Contractor referred to as “online imperialism,” times are expected to change.
“Very soon there will be more Chinese speakers on the Internet than English speakers,” he said of the almost 445 million Chinese online users. “It’ll be very interesting to see the terms you’ll see.”
While users might have been dismayed to get a Facebook friend request from Grandma’s best friend, or had an awkward relative tag an equally as awkward photo, more of life may be incorporated onto the Internet in the coming years.
“For certain, more folks are going to be getting online,” Roberts said. “Today people watch TV on Hulu. The Internet is integrating into our lives more and more.”
But as the Internet increasingly creeps into our daily lives, are we in any danger of losing our language?
Jonathon Keats, a San Francisco experimental philosopher, said language influences technology. Keats’ recent book, “Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology,” explored how new words are formed in today’s society.
“Words can make an abstract idea concrete,” he said, “or at least they can make it so people can talk about that idea. They can foster scientific discovery.”
Roberts, now at the beginning of his career, is positive about the future of language.
“Most linguists would say we’re not in any danger,” he said of social media’s influence on our speech. “Language will always change and evolve. It’s not going to damage our ability to communicate as a species."