The Impact of the Internet on the English Language

For hundreds of years, technology has been driving the evolution of the English language. In the fifteenth century, the invention of the printing press established standard methods of spelling English words. New forms of punctuation were invented to make printed texts easier to read, and for the first time people from different regions began to agree about English grammar. The invention of the telegraph, and later of the radio and the television, had an effect on the English language. New words were invented to describe these new technologies, and new styles of speech were invented by broadcasters. However, it is the Internet that has had the largest effect on the English language, changing it completely in less than two decades.

The hallmark of Internet communication is efficiency. People who began using e-mail, and later instant messaging, found it efficient to invent a whole new world of acronyms, and these spread like wildfire across the Internet. Acronyms such as ‘brb’ and ‘lol’ have made their way into the ordinary speech of young people, and even into the pages of some respectable dictionaries. Meanwhile, it became so easy to communicate over the Internet that people stopped writing things out with a pen and paper. Letters have become obsolete, and everything from school projects to professional reports are created on computers, with the aid of online dictionaries and spellcheckers. Some studies have suggested that young people no longer know how to spell, because they use programmes that auto-correct their work. In this way, the Internet has had as large an effect on spelling conventions as the printing press did, almost six hundred years ago.

The Impact of The Internet on The English Language

The printing press affected the English language in some of the same ways the Internet does today.

More than any other technology, the Internet has encouraged the invention of new words. Sometimes these words are created by expanding the definition of existing words. ‘Traffic’ used to refer to foot traffic, and then to horse and carriages, and then to automobiles. Now it refers to people visiting a website. Words like ‘cyberspace’ and ‘virtual’ were originally invented by science fiction authors, but they were adopted by early Internet users, and entered the wider vocabulary of the public. A ‘virus’ used to be something that made you sick, but today it’s a destructive programme that spreads itself across the Internet. The word ‘wireless’ was originally used for radio communication, but today it refers to wireless Internet. If you use a social networking site such as Facebook, you will be familiar with ‘tagging’ people, or ‘posting’ something to your ‘wall.’ These words all had similar definitions in the past, but they have been given a new twist and are used to refer to virtual activities.

Sometimes words are given entirely new definitions. A ‘troll’ used to be a malicious creature from Norse legend, but now it refers to someone who enjoys harassing other people over the Internet. ‘Spam’ used to be a kind of canned meat, but now it refers to a self-replicating message, often containing advertising, or promoting a scam. A ‘stream’ used to refer to running water, but now it’s a constantly updating stream of information. Sometimes the Internet creates new verbs out of nouns. ‘Troll’ and ‘stream’ can both be used as verbs, and ‘google’ is an entirely new verb that has even been included in some dictionaries.

The Internet and the English Language

A conceptual image of a ‘stream’ of information

Words that were adopted and modified by Internet users come full circle when they make their way back into everyday speech. The word ‘troll’ is a prefect example. It used to refer to a strange, inhuman creature living in the woods of Northern Europe, and then it came to refer to someone behaving badly on the Internet. Now someone can be called a troll when they behave obnoxiously in real life. The word ‘lurking’ is another example. It was adopted by Internet users to refer to someone who views an online conversation without contributing. Now people use it in real life to refer to someone who is part of a group but doesn’t join in the conversation.

The Internet has only existed for a short time, but it’s already had a huge effect on the way people communicate. It’s too soon to judge how permanent the effect of the Internet will be on society and the English language, but it’s likely that the changes people have made to the way they speak will last for hundreds of years. It’s also possible that a new technology will come along and replace the Internet, and acronyms such as ‘lol’ will seem like archaisms to our grandchildren.

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