"Linguistics has evolved"

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From alice-is-thinking on tumblr, three weeks ago, forwarded by a 20-year-old correspondent:


The accompanying note:

this seems to be a rly common phenomenon among millennials who are especially active on social media – myself included

It's been picked up for example by Gretchen McCulloch at All Things Linguistic, who is writing a book about internet language, and by many others.

Some relevant earlier LLOG posts include "It's true", 7/18/2012, featuring this xkcd strip which seems to correspond to Alice 10 years ago:

And on a more specific way that "things like lack of punctuation … have their own connotations and communicate far more than their commonly accepted meaning":

"The new semiotics of punctuation", 11/7/2012
"Aggressive periods and the popularity of linguistics", 11/26/2013
"Generational punctuation differences again", 8/1/2014

This is not just a generational thing — or just a fact about new media. Thus the whole Hillary-Clinton-*sigh* foofaraw seems to be a case where many commentators — starting with Eric Garland's article in The Hill — are interpreting a semiotic subculture from the outside, and therefore completely misinterpreting what they see and hear.

Also, in traditional terms we'd probably say that "language has evolved" rather than that "linguistics has evolved" — but I'd be happy to see linguistics take on the broader sense implicit in what Alice wrote. And linguistics in the traditional sense definitely needs to pay more attention to this kind of heteroglossia.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    "commentators … are interpreting a semiotic subculture from the outside"

    What's rly interesting to me is how Hillary Clinton got on the inside.

    [(myl) EVERYONE is on the inside. And also on the outside. The only question is, inside and outside of what?]

  2. languagehat said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 9:27 am

    I find it a little odd that the post does not mention the use of "linguistics" to mean (I guess) "communication styles."

    [(myl) A good point, and quick work — you commented while I was adding the last paragraph!]

  3. Bloix said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    isn't the point that on-line writing is more like conversational speech than like traditional written English? That is, it partakes of what Language Hat recently called "conversational pitter-patter" (http://languagehat.com/the-universal-gap/) which demands an almost instantaneous understanding and response.
    Traditional writing – even letters between friends – must be entirely comprehensible over a potentially lengthy period of time. The risk of misunderstanding is great and therefore the writing has to include quite a bit of redundancy and clarification.
    On-line social media writing is transmitted instantaneously. The expectation is that there will be immediate responses. It's not surprising that this kind of writing looks like transcribed speech, with some added features to compensate for the absence of pitch and tone.
    I expect that traditional writing will remain standard for all sorts of purposes, although on-line writing (and speech!) features will continue to bleed over, as we've seen in the post here a few days ago about "ironic echoic fragments."

    [(myl) The extent of the intended audience in time and space is one of many factors that influence the cultural evolution of language and communicative practices. But the landscape in which linguistic evolution takes places doesn't determine the details of the resulting systems, any than the comparable factors do in other kinds of evolution.

    "Never mind the differences in anatomy and physiology between elephants and gazelles, the point is that they both evolved as herbivores in a savannah environment"? No.

    And surely classic writers use many words and phrases that "have their own connotations" in the context of use, sometimes to the point that modern readers need footnotes or dictionary consultations or literary critics to understand them.]

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 5:16 pm

    "it is impossible to communicate effectively online without using internet slang" is a thoroughly silly statement.

    [(myl) Depending on the interpretation of "communicate effectively" and "online", maybe not so silly. What do you think of a transmuted form, e.g. "It is impossible to communicate effectively in a legal brief without using lawyers' terminology"?]

  5. Matt said,

    July 3, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    "Linguistics" is often used in hip-hop to mean something like "skill with words" or "(specific) use of words", something similar to the classical concept of "rhetoric." I wonder if that's the sort of meaning the original poster had in mind.

  6. The Other Mark P said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 1:03 am

    It is impossible to communicate effectively in a legal brief without using lawyers' terminology

    It's still easier to communicate in plain English in a brief. It's just unwise because the opposing lawyer will try to find ambiguity. Well written briefs are often relatively free of jargon.

    I belong to quite a few on-line forums that use almost entirely standard English, including capitals and stops. Most commenters there tend to be older (though not all) but they aren't particularly educated. The only "on-line" feature is a tendency to use abbreviations for known phrases. What those forums share though is that the members come from different social backgrounds, and are there to communicate rather than socialise. Hence clear communication is favoured over anything else. It's when socialising on-line that people feel the need to use in-jokes, non-standard usages, short-cuts etc.

    People "need" to use non-standard English on-line for exactly the same reasons they do off-line. To be seen to fit in.

    [(myl) Well, I did say "lawyers' terminology" rather than "lawyers' jargon". Though "jargon" often just means "domain-specific terminology that I don't approve of".

    And "standard English" is itself a way of "fitting in" for certain purposes in certain contexts — with what counts as "standard English" filling a multi-dimensional space, where some regions might "fit in" in one context and be bizarrely out of place in another. Or more relevant here, some "standard" choices will have very different interpretations in different contexts.]

  7. January First-of-May said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 5:54 am

    It depends on the forum, I suppose. A typical OTT (xkcd Time thread) post (from anywhere after the first few dozen pages) would have a lot of OTT-exclusive vocabulary, like "molpy", but very little general online shortenings like "u" and "rly".
    And a typical AlternateHistory.com post would probably be in rather decent English (perhaps with a bit of AH.com jargon, like "IOTL" or "wank"), unless written in a hurry.

    Then again, I haven't seen much of said online shortenings (not to be confused with online abbreviations, like "LOL" and "OMG", which are now common everywhere, including the spoken language) on Language Log comments either.

    I suppose it might be more common on the platforms that do look like social media (Reddit, Metafilter), or on actual social media (Facebook, Twitter).

  8. Tim Morris said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 7:44 am

    Phone keyboards, message layouts, and predictive-text programs have all led to less reliance on shorthand expressions. If there's less effort involved in writing "great" than "gr8," people will write "great."

  9. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 7:56 am

    Lawyers use legal terminology in briefs because legal terms have very specific meanings, in many cases meanings that are very distinct from the meanings that the same words carry in normal discourse. (Consider, for example, what "briefs" means to a lawyer as opposed to what it means to a shopper.) Maybe it's because I don't know enough Internet slang, but I'm not aware of any Internet slang with meanings that can't be conveyed through everyday language.

    I'm very active on Facebook, where I communicate with a wide range of people, including my children (ages 29 through 55) and grandchildren (those who use Facebook range from 14 through 29) and I see virtually no Internet slang from anyone. In fact, the biggest user of Internet slang is the 14-year-old, and her use is pretty much confined to annoying but easily understood abbreviations such as "u r". I think we all communicate quite effectively.

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 9:19 am

    Mark raises the question of the interpretation of 'online'. I was wondering about that too. We are online now. Posters and commenters at Language Log tend to use standard English with traditional punctuation, capitalisation etc., and I don't think any massive failure of communication happens because of this. The same is true at various other blogs I am familiar with. So what does 'online communication' really mean in this context?

  11. January First-of-May said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

    I've thought about it a bit, and in this case, "online communication" probably refers to Twitter.

    A lot of the classic "online abbreviations" used to be known as SMS abbreviations (aka "text-speak"). Many of them were explicitly created to save characters in SMS messages (which, a decade or two ago, used to be limited to 150-ish characters/bytes – can't recall the specific figure, but it was in that ballpark).
    Some of them are indeed for ease of typing, and some might postdate the SMS age entirely and just be there for the slang. (And then there's the unrelated online slang, like 1337.) But most (that I'm aware of) are indeed from the SMS era.

    Now, enter Twitter. It's a popular platform to post on, and messages there are limited to 140 characters (apparently not actually bytes this time).
    So all the nearly-forgotten SMS abbreviations that just barely lived on as generic online slang end up finding a new home on Twitter. (Well, some of them do, at least – I'm hardly ever seeing many of the abbrevs that come up in nineties-era "internet slang" lists. But they might have just been less common originally anyway.)

    Of course, as Twitter becomes extremely popular, the abbreviations filter back into generic slang again. But it's always been traditional to use serious English on serious forum posts, so it's only the chattier (can't think of a better word) places online that get the abbreviations more easily.
    It would be nice to find out the relative frequency, over the last 15-20 years, of the semi-common abbreviations (not "LOL" and "OMG", which are so common that they're even entering spoken language, but stuff like "b4" and "gr8") – I'd expect to find the biggest dip shortly before the growth of Twitter. I doubt there's enough known data, however. (Not many discussion sites survived the last 15-20 years, or even the last 10 years, in a consistent way.)

  12. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    Good point, January. The question then becomes why people say 'online' when they mean Twitter.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

    TBH, I not at all clear on what is meant by "Internet slang." There's a website, internetslang.com, and a glance at a few pages there reveals a hodgepodge of abbreviations and slang that has entered Internet communications without having originated there (e.g., "BABYSITTING," defined as "Holding the weed too long."

    And, in fact, quite a few of the abbreviations were in use long before the Internet existed; e.g., "R&B" for "Rhythm and Blues," which was current back in the 1950s.

    So precisely what is Internet slang? If it's nothing more than what this website reveals, the statement that it's impossible to communicate effectively online without using is not only, it's ludicrous. If, for example, I use "LOL," it communicates effectively only with those who know what the abbreviation stands for; if I use "laughing out loud," I communicate with everyone, including those who understand the abbreviation and those who don't.

    (And don't assume that everyone knows what "LOL" stands for. I just recently learned that my younger sister has for years thought it meant "lots of love.")

  14. Nova said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    "internetslang.com" is just a collection of aging terminology and is wildly removed from what alice-is-thinking is referring to. You'll notice she mentions paralinguistic features, lack of punctuation, exploitation of mixed modes… slang in this context is not just funny words and phrases, but a host of features, in-jokes that everyone is in on, exploitation of the visual aspect of written text (e.g. capitalizing words to Mean Something in an untranslatable sense, ending a sentence with a comma or three,,,), memes, reaction gifs/emojis etc. that are unique to the medium of mass text-and-photo based communications of the internet. And it's constantly changing. A better place to start might be memedocumentation.tumblr.com , though of course that's only going to show you the "tumblr dialect" and only as fossilized in time from 2015. If you don't think your teenage grandchildren (and 30ish children) are using "internet slang" on Facebook it's quite possible you don't know what to look for.

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