24 February 2015

Hyper-Modern English

Most people know that language evolves over time; it's obvious enough if you compare the English of Shakespeare or even of the Victorian era with present-day English.  But the internet is changing the way language changes.  In hindsight this should have been foreseeable.  Language exists for communication, and the internet is a communication medium whose character is in many ways unprecedented.

Internet communication has three distinctive features which are influencing the way English changes.  The first and most obvious is that it is typed, not spoken.  The second is that it is instantaneous, allowing some innovations to quickly proliferate globally from a single source (an example would be the word pwned, which seems to have originated a few years ago from a typo made by some one individual somewhere, but is already almost universal).  Finally, much of the English-using population on the internet -- probably the great majority -- consists of non-native speakers.  Popular culture is discussed on the internet on a vast scale (by definition, if it's popular culture), and internationally.  While political discussions tend to take place within individual countries (because each country's political system and universe of issues and candidates is separate), for pop culture, nationality is pretty much irrelevant.  A single common language is needed so that everyone can understand everyone else, and given the dominance of English in today's world, it has inevitably become the internet lingua franca as well.

What I see proliferating across the internet is not exactly standard English as we've long known it, but a sort of ad hoc hyper-modern dialect full of new expressions for all the now-essential concepts that didn't exist a decade or so ago. If you're like me, you've been gradually absorbing this over the last few years without quite realizing it.  Pwned, blogosphere, selfie, wiki, cosplay, hashtag, gif, Singularity, lolcat, uncanny valley, spambot, emoticon, shipper, meatspace, femslash, incel, banhammer, Rule 34, twincest, headcanon, doxx, concern troll, reblog, bromance -- how many of these terms would you, or anyone, have understood just ten years ago? This dialect can bewilder uninitiated speakers of old-fashioned English who encounter it, and the presence of a few Japanese loan words further baffles those who, having finally worked out what manga and hentai refer to, are darkly suspicious of yuri and senpai. Curiously enough, Hyper-Modern English never seems to adopt words from any other foreign language except Japanese. Likely it's the influence of the anime subculture.

The fact that Hyper-Modern English is almost entirely written on keyboards rather than spoken explains the great profusion of acronyms -- in typing, not speech, they save a lot of time. Everyone knows what HTML and URL mean, but how many remember the original full phrases the letters stood for? They're essentially words now -- in writing. So are ROFL, BBS, ISP, NSFW, AMV, YOLO, IRL, PI, FFS, IIRC, OTP, IP, AMA, OP, etc. I recently saw a centuries-old text referred to as "a masterpiece of FOAD". How long will it be before pronounceable acronyms like FOAD and PLOSTFU become simply "foad" and "plostfu" -- ordinary words, their origins forgotten? Remember, "laser" originated that way, and "AIDS" is getting there -- it's already written as a word ("Aids") in the UK, and pronounced as one everywhere.

Notice that this is not merely slang; slang is casual (and transient) words which are merely alternative ways of expressing meanings which standard words already express. These are new words necessitated by new concepts (though many of the acronyms are just faster ways of writing existing phrases).  They also aren't "technical terms" in the sense of terms used only by experts on a specific technology. They're cultural terms. A language doesn't exist in a vacuum -- it's the product of a particular culture. In this case, the new language and the new culture are evolving (very rapidly) in parallel with each other. Technology is just the medium.

Will Hyper-Modern English influence the older standard that might now be called Meatspace English? It's probably inevitable. Purists have always resisted neologisms, but they almost always lose when the neologism expresses a genuinely new meaning. Take "pwned", for example -- exactly the sort of word traditionalists are most likely to reject. Its etymology is a typo, its pronunciation is jarringly unpredictable from its spelling, and it's mostly used (for now) by people the fuddy-duddies sneer at. But -- when someone gets pwned, what exactly happened to him? He lost an argument? He was triumphed over? He was exposed as a phony? He was made a fool of? Those definitions come close, sort of, but none of them expresses exactly what "getting pwned" means. Even the original "owned" suffers from ambiguity, since its primary meaning is rather different. So the purists will, I think, be unable to purge "pwned" from general usage. In fact, they'll be pwned by it.

Similarly, who said "such-and-such is now a thing" ten years ago? Nobody. Nowadays it's normal usage -- one might even say it's a thing -- because there's no other expression with exactly the same meaning.

I rather think Shakespeare -- who was one of the great popularizers and language innovators of his day -- would approve.

[Image at top from Vivifx AMV of I Ship It by Not Literally]

8 Comments:

Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

What a great post on a subject I love. Language is a living thing, and we've been adding new words and shortening old ones for centuries (we meaning mostly English speakers--the French, not so much, but I do love that language.)

Good-bye was actually "God be with you," for example.

"How do you do" was used as early as 1697. From "how do you do" we got "how-d ye," "ye" being an old form of "you." Say "how-d ye" fast and you get "howdy!" The old fussbudgets hated it.

This post is fascinating because it shows that the more we change the more we remain the same--and our adopting new words and adapting to them is something we humans have done forever.

25 February, 2015 18:57  
Anonymous NickM said...

Laser is curious one. Charles Townes of Berkley sort of invented it (though the similar MASER invented in the USSR shortly but clearly predated it).

Anyhoo, Charles Townes goes to the bank because (corectly) He thought this is a biggy. Obviously pitching something so new to a banker is a hard call. So the banker asks Townes what it does...

"Well it's Light Oscillation by Stimulated Emission of Radiation"

Banker says, Er... You can't call it that! The acronym is LOSER! So he suggests replacing "Oscillation" with "Amplification".

Hence the laser.

26 February, 2015 02:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: Thanks! English has actually been through periods of change much more dramatic than this, as in Anglo-Saxon times, but the internet now allows us to see everything happening in real time, world-wide.

NickM: It's also given rise to a verb by analogical formation -- "it lases" and so forth. It's lucky language is so resilient at absorbing innovations like this, because our capacity to generate them seems infinite.

26 February, 2015 05:53  
Anonymous NickM said...

Well, here's one to ponder from the good old UK. "Chav". It means a lower-class child with a propensity for petty crime and general obnoxiousness. It is pretty universal (both the creature and the term) across the UK but I am sure it derives from the Geordie (NE England - where I am from) "Charver" meaning the same thing. But "Chav" has almost totally replaced "Charver" even in the NE. Odd but true.

26 February, 2015 10:08  
Blogger uzza said...

Should we include eggcorns as part of this? While they used to be rare, they've become ubiquitous over the past decade or so, and in fact even their name is new. They seem to result from the rise of spell check combined with, IMHO, the fall of our educational standards. Whatever, it's no longer any use to complain about "tow the line" or "give free reign".

06 January, 2016 17:54  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

NickM & Uzza: I wouldn't put those in the category of "hyper-modern English". I've heard the term "chav", but it doesn't seem particularly specific to internet English; it's a feature of the British form of English, even if a relatively new one. Phrases like "tow the line" or "give free reign" aren't genuinely new expressions for new meanings -- they're merely misspellings of long-established phrases, which don't change the meaning and, again, aren't really specific to the internet. Misspellings have been around for as long as the alphabet, and were probably even commoner in centuries past than today.

06 January, 2016 19:09  
Blogger uzza said...

Well, ok, but I just saw someone accused of being a "bonified racist". Don't know how to classify that one. :-)

11 January, 2016 15:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Again, just a spelling mistake, not a neologism. They can be amusing but they've existed as long as writing has.

12 January, 2016 04:24  

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