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A Linguist Explains Why Texting and Tweeting Aren’t Ruining the English Language

'Because Internet' explores how the internet is transforming the way we communicate.

by Anna Iovine
Jul 23 2019, 11:00am

Courtesy of Gretchen McCulloch 

As a social media editor, I am Extremely Online, and pride myself on knowing the latest memes and internet-speak. I see how phrases enter the lexicon and travel a similar pathway: used by a small group of people online (often young people and people of color), then spread out to a wider net of people who are also Very Online, eventually reaching those who aren't on Twitter for 10 hours a day (and, for better or worse, brands).

The phenomena of memes, gifs, and other ways of communicating online are increasingly the subject of serious academic inquiry. There's already been a dissertation on memes, and another on 4chan, for example. While some may dismiss "doge" and "smol" as insignificant, others know the internet is changing the fabric of the English language daily. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch has been writing about the language of the internet for seven years, and now she's encapsulated some of that knowledge into a book. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language , which comes out July 23, breaks down the history of internet language, from the first-known use of "lol" to emoji to memes.

VICE spoke to McCulloch about why she wanted to write a book about internet linguistics, as well as why we shouldn't worry about emoji "replacing" English. It has been edited for length:

VICE: What made you want to write this book?
Gretchen McCulloch: It was a bit weird to say, "Oh, I want to write a book about the internet." The internet is so fast moving, and a book is so much of an archive that preserves something in a very static form. You can't just go update it like you could, say, a blog post. I wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about something that was so fast moving as the internet; another generation, people won't necessarily know what it was like to be around at this time. Websites decay, websites go down, Geocities went away.

When you write a book, you're trying to figure out how to distill something that's living and breathing into a format that's very static and fixed. At the same time, it's an opportunity; if you can kind of encapsulate a particular era, then you have that as a sort of historical record. You have it to look back on, even when it eventually becomes a history book.

In terms of why you should read this book now and not 50 years from now: a book is still the best way we have for people to experience something big in the same order. I write a lot of short articles, but each of them have to start with the assumption that people have never necessarily read anything I've written, or read anything else about linguistics, or don't necessarily know anything about the internet. With a book, you can build up for a bigger idea because you have a longer space.

Every so often I see people concerned that emoji will "replace" words and we'll all be talking in emoticons in the future. In the chapter on emoji in Because Internet , you say there's no reason to fear that because emoji are not a language. So what are they?
My favorite analogy for emoji in terms of what they're doing in communication is that they're akin to a gesture—say, a thumbs up or a middle finger. We gesture all the time but we don't really think about what we're doing when we do it. My podcast co-host, Lauren Gawne, has done a bunch of research on this.

Thinking about emoji as gesture explains a lot about how they caught on so quickly. There are systematic ways people use gesture. One big distinction is that some gestures have conventional names and some don't. A thumbs up, or the middle finger, or a wink has a name. You know what the gesture looks like. But if you were to describe your travels, you're probably going to make gestures to describe your trip. But those gestures don't have conventional English names. Maybe you pointed, maybe you used your open hand—you could've done a bunch of things. We don't have names the way a thumbs up is a thumbs up is a thumbs up.

This is one of the distinctions you can make in terms of emojis. Some emojis have iconic names and they're used specifically as emojis. You have the winking face, the thumb and index finger on your chin—that's a specific thing that has an additional meaning it brings when you say an utterance. It's used as its capacity in emoji to change something about what you're saying, to change something about the meaning of what you're saying.

And then you have emojis that are more of a literal illustration, like a birthday cake. You don't have to have any "emoji fluency" to interpret that the birthday cake is a birthday cake. You have to have a cultural fluency of what a birthday cake is, but there's nothing special about that emoji. Whereas the thinking face emoji requires an "emoji competence" to interpret.

Some emojis have a specific "extra" meaning—like the "tears of joy" emoji, which someone could interpret as crying if they are not "emoji fluent." If you think of them in this kind of relationship to gesture, then the different types of functions that emerged have make a lot more sense. This also means that—we gesture along with our speech, and that doesn't mean we don't talk. They have a mutually-beneficial relationship.

Something that wasn't really covered in Because Internet —maybe it will be in a future edition!—is the rise of voice memos and smart devices like Alexa and how they impact internet linguistics, or linguistics overall.
I thought about whether I should include a discussion on this in the book. I decided not to because a lot of what people are doing with voice tech at this moment is giving commands to a machine. You're saying, "Set a timer for five minutes." That's a user interface, that's not a conversation. Even things we talk about conversational design is a different kind of user interface. I'm not talking about the design of menu buttons in the book, either. Not talking about voice commands like, "Set a timer for five minutes" is the same as not talking about the graphic design of your timer app where you press a button to set a timer.

It's an interesting space. That's something I really hope they'll be more research about in the next few years because I think there are people using voice memos for communication. There's been a little bit of research about that so far, especially refugee populations because some of them are illiterate, or they don't have keyboards that support their languages. So, they're using voice memos because it's difficult for them to communicate with each other otherwise. It's easier for them to use recorded voice, which is a really interesting use case.

Do you think we're going to eventually sound the same, is our vocabulary going to merge as we all spend time online? Will there be a death of regional slang?
This has been a constant prediction that has never actually been borne out. Over time, there's been people thinking that the rise of various kinds of mass media will lead to the collapse of different regional ways of talking. Some of the early dialect surveys from the 1800s featured people saying, "Well, now we have newspapers so people aren't going to talk the way that they used to." A few decades later it happened with the radio, then with the television, and now with the internet.

It's an understandable type of impulse, but we haven't seen it with any other types of mass media. I think it's probably overblown. There are definitely some slang terms that can spread via the internet. There is internet-based slang, while other slang terms are regional or local or age-based, or generational. Those slang terms are passed along through other means. You'll see internet-based slang may have specific spelling, or include emoji or emoticons, that are based on the writing format itself. An example is "smol"—that's an internet-based slang not attached to any region that spread through the internet.

Finally, is there an internet linguistic trend you hate, like a slang term or meme?
What really gets me is people dismissing internet languages. The people that are creating it are doing so consciously and intentionally and creatively. It's really easy to say, "Oh, well, the kids are doing something that I don't understand, therefore, they're not doing anything important." What annoys me is the annoyance over internet languages itself. It's easy to dismiss something as laziness, when in fact, it often takes more effort to punctuate exactly how you want to convey a particular tone of voice online.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.