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Language is Alive and Animated: How the Internet Influences Linguistic Change

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By the second week of July, everything was cake.

Photo by Caitlyn de Wild on Unsplash

That bizarre sentence may not make any sense to anyone who has not been spending enough time on the internet lately. It started when BuzzFeed’s Tasty shared a video on Twitter of regular items such as a tissue roll, plant pot and bottle of hand sanitizer that all turn out to be cakes when sliced in the middle.

The video caught on a few days later as people started doing their own versions of the cakes, reaction videos to short films or Tik Tok videos. But it also attracted different reactions from netizens. Most were fascinated, some were unsettled and others started to question if they were, in fact, made of cakes. Still, no matter how strong the effect of the meme was, after a week or two, the netizens moved on to their next fascination.

Memes are a small part of the internet language ecosystem that has been shaping language in general and revolutionizing virtual – and even actual face-to-face – mingling. Memes are not new; the word can be traced back to almost 50 years ago when it was coined to refer to a unit of cultural transmission.[1] But the wide reach of the internet and the humor with which memes of today are crafted have put memes to the top of the content food chain.

Memes and all the new words and acronyms the internet has spawned have indeed grown part of many people’s internet lives they have breached normal “analog” conversations, proving how dynamic language remains and how we humans traverse – and merge – our digital and real worlds. The changes in how we communicate using keyboard to show frustration (asdfghjkldrhjgfb!!), suspicion (side eye emoji) and excitement (I can’t waIT FOR MY BIRTHDAY) are a reflection of the changing society made possible by the prevalence of the web.

Digital natives find it almost second nature to adopt this online lingo. For the occasional net surfers, navigating this world means learning the language:

Memes

Photo from Know Your Meme

The first thing people imagine when someone says meme is a picture with a bold white text in it, and they’re correct – those are memes. But memes are constantly developing and are now much more complex than that.

An internet meme or simply meme nowadays is any photo, video, song or content spread via the internet usually for humorous purposes. It can spread from one person to another through social media, blogs or other news sources.

A decade ago, memes are straightforward and simple: a picture, usually a movie still with a relatable text accompanying it. Think Leo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby raising a glass of champaign and fireworks going off behind him with the text “Congratulations” or “Happy New Year.” Memes today, however, need context to be understood. For example, picture the “woman yelling at cat” meme but replace the cat with the red character from the popular game Among Us with the text “you’re sus” or “I saw you vent.” Those who are not familiar with the game may not appreciate or understand the meme, but that’s ok as a new meme will likely come out soon enough anyway.

Are memes important?

Memes provide a snapshot of cultural events or point in time that can carry meaning or message to a broad audience. They can come from personalities, popular media or events that occurred somewhere in the world. As more people spend time online, memes have been an integral part of communicating digitally to substitute for the lack of nonverbal cues such as hand gestures and facial expressions. Visual content like memes are preferred by internet users and prioritized by many social sites’ algorithms for their entertainment and recall value. 

Some memes go beyond the digital world and enter real-life conversations and live independent of the images, too.  Take for instance, the expectation vs. reality, I am you but stronger and one does simply memes. The context or meaning can be understood even without the accompanying image.

Typography

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

Internet written language reflects speech – or at least try to convey the intended tone – in its own unique and creative way. The new rules of typographical tone of voice replicate the dynamics of face-to-face interaction and signal individual identities, perfect for the digital space where people often share carefree and humorous ideas and concepts.

For example, capitalizing the first letter of words communicates that This Thing is Very Important. Putting b  i  g    s  p  a  c  e  s  between words makes for  e  m  p  h  a  s  i  s. RandOm caPitaLizatIoN is uSeD to ImpLy sarcasm.

Runningallyourwordstgetherwithoutspacesmeansthatyouaresayingsomethingveryimportant veryfast. Using unnecessary!!! punctuation!!! marks! to show excitement!!!! and smiley 🙂 faces 🙂 to 🙂 show 🙂 bottled 🙂 pain 🙂 These techniques originated and developed organically from users and eventually got integrated into the collective online lexicon.

While some would argue that this form of writing is making people lazy and negligent of grammar, others believe that it is making them better communicators. Notwithstanding one’s position on how language should evolve, the online written language animates online social interactions – making it as alive as possible indeed. And if the aim of communication is to be the measure, this evolving online typography successfully conveys the message and is understood, and scholars are expected to observe the current linguistic landscape, not judge it.

Slang

Photo by Nate Smith on Unsplash

The online vocabulary is influenced and enriched by the many channels and corners of the internet. The popular 2011 word YOLO came from a song by the rapper Drake.[2] Woke, which is now widely used as a byword for social awareness, stemmed from African American vernacular English to mean “awake”[3] and the term noob meaning newbie came from video game users. These words move from specialized usage to a more general use over time. There was selfie in 2013, on fleek in 2015 and stan in 2019.

Other times, existing words are given a completely new meaning and this new meaning get incorporated into people’s vocabulary.  For example, receipts, which used to refer only to an acknowledgement document for the sale of goods now also refers to “proof” as in screenshots of conversations or pictures to use as evidence to prove a point. Another example is tea, which originated from drag culture and eventually spilled into social media in reaction memes, lifestyle articles and popular TV shows. Tea is now also used to refer to gossip or facts as in “spill the tea, sis” and “the tea is exceptionally good today.”

The online vocab will continue to expand the same way that the digital environment changes, and will continue to make its way into the collective consciousness. The evolution of the internet language is an ongoing process. Internet slangs, memes and typography are but a peek into human nature, cultural events and references that change regularly. These changes and variations are good indications of a healthy language because at the end of the day, the only languages that remain the same are the dead ones.


[1] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/where-the-word-meme-comes-from/

[2] https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hss-language-evolution/wiki/chapter-12/#2_Emergence_of_digitally-mediated_language

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/woke-meaning-origin

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