Has Technology Accelerated the Evolution of Language?

New technology always brings about linguistic change. New styles of punctuation were developed after the invention of the printing press in 1440. The telephone brought about new ways to greet family and friends. Before mobile phones had QWERTY keyboards, ‘text speak’ became popular in order to save time, effort and blistered thumbs (c u 2nite m8!). But none have changed language more drastically than the internet.

Our most common words, sayings and even emotions are being broken down and abbreviated one by one. Much to the dismay of comedian Bill Bailey who jokes about the phenomenon in this video, these acronyms are now slipping in to spoken language too. Most of us have heard people using ‘lol’, ‘yolo’ or ‘brb’ in normal everyday conversation and it’s also becoming more popular to merge words in to portmanteaus such as ‘blogosphere’ and ‘chillax’.

Displaying our Emotions

Another tech-induced change to written language is the emoticon. Before the World Wide Web was around people often used computer networks to communicate via Bulletin Boards. Scott E. Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University changed language forever when he thought up the emoticon. After a few mishaps on the computer science community bulletin board due to jokes being taken out of context, Scott and other users of the bulletin board realised the need for a better way to convey humour. Scott came up with the idea of using punctuation marks to create a happy face indicating good news and a sad face for more serious news. Use of the emoticon proved so effective that it quickly spread to bulletin boards around America when people began using them outside of the university boards, and eventually the rest of the world caught on.

A decade later when instant messaging services became more popular, emoticons received an upgrade. Now when a user typed in an emoticon they would see an image. Usually a yellow face that was sometimes animated (MSN users might also remember ‘Winks’ and ‘Nudges’).

Evolution of the Emoji

Jump ahead a few years and Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita developed Emoji’s. A similar concept to emoticons but based on Unicode rather than combinations of basic text. Emoji’s have proven hugely popular the world over. Having outgrown informal online conversations they are now seen in offline media and advertising on TV, billboards, t-shirts and even cookies.

These tiny symbols of expression have become so representative of our emotions that when Twitter changed the symbols of their favouriting system from ‘stars’ to ‘hearts’ at the beginning of November, the whole Twitterverse exploded with strong opinions. Some welcomed the change, others loathed it. For a Twitter user, a star that portrays a merit sends a completely different message than a heart which portrays love. This complicates everything!

According to researcher of psychology Dr Owen Churches, these recent changes in how we communicate are having a direct effect on the brain. Churches discovered in his research that when participants were shown emoticons, the brain reacted as though it had seen another human face. Not just some squiggly lines on a screen.

So what will the language of the future look like?

In short, no one knows for sure. Linguists normally study how language changes over 100’s of years, but technology has accelerated the evolution of communication so quickly in just a few decades that it’s impossible to know at this stage where the English language will be 100 years from now. The exciting part of all this is that these recent changes in how we communicate are creating a truly global language. Emoji’s, emoticons and even memes help us to understand each other across social networks, multiplayer games and beyond no matter where you live.

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