In “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” linguist Gretchen McCulloch discusses the dynamic between rigid enshrined rules for written language and the ways the Internet is rapidly changing them.
Internet English is fed by two worlds
Internet English occupies a special place in our language because it rapidly incorporates and modifies the language so that we can talk about the unique developments and interactions of two massively connected worlds—our physical globalized one and the digital realm.
In the former, our simultaneous de-emphasis of in-person interaction and skyrocketing phone usage means that Internet English has adapted to help us accurately and emotionally express in words, symbols and characters what we would otherwise say with tone, volume, annunciation, and pace in our voices (and body language if we were in person). We’re still emotionally complex and conflicted beings, we just happen to tap and swipe our feelings out more now.
In the latter, the digital realm creates common areas to users and groups from different cultures and sub-cultures that are separated by geography. Whether as a by-product of the rise of these groups or as a means of identifying within shared publicly visible parts of the Internet, unique written speech habits, ideas and vocabulary have become an invisible text-based membership card. Put another way, our word choices, structures and habits become our unique writing “accent.”
Examples of Internet-origin Writing Habits
We’ve seen a wresting of authority from literary-inspired formal writing as the de-facto standard for writing in the digital space (though we surely all know at least one person who writes overly formal emails) and a greater emphasis on incorporating informal writing habits that help us imply—at least in some small measure—some of the nuances and undertones we’d get with speaking. Groupspeak, emojis and slang aside, here are a few examples writing habits that come directly from the Internet or informal speech patterns.
- “Because noun” construction: Why has written language changed so quickly? Because Internetz.
- Sarcasm Tilde: Well, aren’t you ~considerate.
- Expressive lengthening: Yesss. Buy errthinnggg.
- Stacking punctuation: The nuances of adding and combining different numbers of exclamation and question marks.
- Softening Filler: You’re late lol.
- Punctuation: I don’t know why my dad keeps using ellipses at the end of every message…
Why Formal and Internet writing will always be needed
Research shows that the brain is trained by having to use different language depending on context and speaker, which enhances attention and memory skills. Even better, this same benefit applies to speakers of dialects, which are variations of a given language depending on the demographics of a group of speakers such as region, class or ethnicity.
While we can definitely argue that different internet cultures have their own way of speaking (apparently a written dialect is a grapholect, who knew?), it’d be more helpful to just think of Internet speak as a register, which is a variation of language depending on the social situation.
Suffice it to say, the more registers (read, the more modes we can set ourselves to) we know, the better we handle socially and the better communicators we become.
Knowing this all, one of the most underrated skills is the ability to properly read, understand, and communicate digitally. Making sense of somebody, half a world away, on a different timezone can make all the difference when communicating.