OMG! Is Social Media Eroding Our Language?

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While indulging in my usual early morning news-gathering I came across a very interesting article from Rebecca Lawn of the BBC. Her article squarely focused on how our traditional languages are evolving and possibly diluting in the digital age. Lawn’s article discussed how informal words are taking over social media outlets at the expense of their more formal versions and whether this will have any lasting effect on language. This brought to mind another news story from late last year, in which British actor Ralph Fiennes claimed that the truncated text of sites such as Twitter were eroding the English language. Now it’s not for me to question such a magnificent advocate of the English language and noted Shakespearian performer as Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes but it has inspired me to take a look at how social media is affecting the English language – be it written or oral - and whether it is having a detrimental effect on our mother tongue.

So is Fiennes right – is social media seeking to destroy our wonderful words and, as a result, the way in which we write? Or is our social media oriented language merely a reflection of today’s emerging technologies and rapidly growing methods of communication? Is there even an argument that social media has the ability to improve the way we write.

One thing is certain the evidence that our language is changing is irrefutable. Increasingly we are turning nouns and adjectives to verbs and you certainly don’t need to Google that to check it’s true…see what I did there? In 2011, the words “retweet,” “sexting” and “cyberbullying” were all added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ridiculousness of that last statement alone may make you LOL…hey it may very well make you ROFL!

Language constantly changes as people become more and more influenced by their surroundings and utilise differing methods of communication. Our own William Shakespeare frequently crafted words by simply altering the originals or by plucking them from thin air – bump, elbow, scuffle, puking and eyeball among the long list. While Shakespeare’s words spread quickly through the theatre world our new words catch on even more rapidly with social media making content and new language accessible to all. Luckily for us, even with the introduction of faster and more varied communication channels, the English language seems to have adapted incredibly well. Prior to these new social technologies, when print, television and radio was the only mass communication medium, such evolution of words and how they were used took a long time. Not anymore.

It really is fascinating to see a language evolve – model and remodel – so quickly, and raises bigger questions than I’m qualified to answer. How do new phrases take hold on society and become commonplace? How different will the English language be in 20 years? Will it perhaps be similar to Orwellian “newspeak” from 1984? This is of course conjecture, however one thing I do know is that it is not only English speakers that are using acronyms such as LOL and BFF, they seem to be permeating other world languages too. While doing some research for this article I have found that the use of English-based acronyms such as ROFL or LOL are commonly used in French, German, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish social media channels in text form – primarily it seems to be Indo-European languages, but some instances have been seen in Arabic and Chinese!

Of course the reason for these acronyms is to make our text more concise. When we first heard that Twitter had a 140-character limit, most of us didn’t believe that we would be able to convey something significant in 30 words. But we now realise that is the beauty of Twitter – it pushes us to get to the very essence of what we are trying to say. It also displays the beauty of language in its simplest form and shows that you don’t need full sentences or paragraphs to make an impression or drive people to action.

In fact anyone who’s ever written an essay with a strict word-limit will know that it is much harder to cut down a text than expand it. A restricted writing space forces us to think carefully about our meaning. Digressions often undermine the core message and as the old adage goes: less is more. So rather than hampering language, social media has the potential to aid literacy and assist people to write more concisely. Twitter co-creator Dom Sagolla has even written a book on getting the most out of 140 characters. For better or for worse, though, we are all in a new world of communications — and most of us will have to learn the new language.

There is no single right or wrong way to integrate “social speak” into our personal and work lives - it all depends upon your own tolerance and spare-time, your colleagues, your setting even your profession. Only time will tell how language evolves as a result of the digital revolution. But all signs so far suggest that literacy won’t suffer too badly…u no wot I mn?

What do you think will happen to our language over the coming decades? Let us know on Facebook or comment below.

Paul Shepherd

I've worked in digital communications for around 15 years, and specialised in social media for the past three. Passionate about new technologies, media, and the impact it has on businesses bottom line, I try to bring that passion to every campaign for every brand we work with.