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How Digital Technology Has Changed Language – The Good, The Bad and The Smiley

31st May 2021

Chat. Jargon. Jibber jabber. Even the language we use to describe language is rich and diverse.

Over our species’ history, language has been evolving constantly, and the deep and intricate nature of the way we communicate is arguably the reason we’re the dominant species on Earth; should a Jurassic Park-esque scenario ever become a reality, it’s not velociraptors opening doors we should worry about – it’s T-Rexes writing sonnets.

We’ve come a long way from the cave painting and war dancing of our ancestors, and from the time when written communication was new (some 30,000 years ago); we’ve now crossed the 1,000,000 word threshold in English.

What’s fascinating about this achievement, is the word that tipped us over the edge. The millionth word added to our language, controversially, was ‘web 2.0’ – and this is hugely telling. Technology has always been one of the major driving factors in the evolution of language and communication, but in recent years, with the emergence of digital technology, these things have been turned on their head, possibly forever.

Marketing and the Digital Revolution

The subheading might make it sound like a weird math-rock Prince cover band, but marketing and the language of digital are two things that go hand in hand. For those working in digital or content marketing, language is hugely important. It’s central to everything.

Marketing is all about understanding how to communicate to a target audience, which for the most part is done, in one form or another, through language – written and spoken.

As our modern world increasingly turns digital – and with the internet of things now making big waves in Western society (think A.I speakers) – it’s never been more important to understand how language has been shaped by the digital frontier.

Digital Communication

There’s no question that digitisation and the internet have redefined how we communicate. We can talk to each other across huge distances. We can get in touch with people that in the past, we would never have had the opportunity to meet. We can talk with, record, watch, and write to people across the entire globe, in an insurmountable number of ways.

The internet, arguably the biggest evolution in communication, is itself built upon a foundation of language. As Bill Gates famously said, ‘content is king’, and the internet is governed by the written word.

Despite the popularity of video and image content, search engines – the godly entities by which essentially the entire internet is filtered to us – only really understand written content.

This says a lot about the foundations of modern communication, but it potentially could ring some alarm bells; if the internet is able to fluidly understand written communication, could there be justification for fears of technology’s ability to influence people? With the rise of superintelligent A.I, could machines learn to write and communicate by themselves?

The Good

It’s not all doom and gloom. By developing technology to the extent we have, we can now communicate in ways that our ancestors would likely have thought impossible.

The concept of being able to live video chat with a friend was once singularly relegated to the realm of science fiction, and it’s now commonplace (we can even do it on the move – *Christopher Walken Impression* “It’s CRAZY”).

As a result of the countless methods we can now use communicate, our language has also diversified in ways we would likely have never predicted.

Simply put – there are lots more words now. The internet, with its layers of interconnectivity and endless sources of inspiration, has led to countless new terms and additions to our vocabulary.

This includes things like now-officially-recognised abbreviations such as ‘lol’ (shudder), which are not relegated purely to the digital realm – many of us will have heard friends say ‘lol’ out loud, without actually laughing (possibly and justifiably prompting a swift removal of said culprit from our friendship circle).

Say what you will about these new ‘internet words’ (we did – check out our articleon it), there’s no doubt that digital tech is broadening our vocab GCSE-French-style.

It doesn’t just widen vocabulary in terms of specific words either – but also exposes us to entirely new dialects and grammatical forms. Anyone who’s read ‘Wuthering Heights’ will likely remember the almost nonsensical Yorkshire dialect of the servant, Joseph.

Compare this to popular social media pages like ‘Scottish Banter’, or simply take a look at the number of middle class schoolchildren now referring to each other as ‘blud’ or ‘fam’, it’s easy to see that our ability to comprehend, understand, and utilise dialects we weren’t previously exposed to has improved significantly as a result of digital interconnectivity.

Digital tech has also lead to new forms of communication entirely – enter the meme. By integrating image and language seamlessly, memes have become a globally recognised form of communication – there’s even an argument that understanding the warped grammar of certain memes like ‘doge’ (Much digital marketing. Very content. Wow.) requires a basic knowledge of accurate grammatical forms – to be able to write deliberately incorrectly, you have to be able to write correctly in the first place.

It’s also interesting to think about how ‘pure’ internet language is. Linguistics have always developed due to the way people use and apply language, but there has historically been a divide between the educated and the illiterate.

Essentially, it’s traditionally been accepted that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of speaking, but the internet is blurring that line. As the internet becomes the primary way by which huge amounts of people now communicate, there is no longer such a clearly defined, ‘established’ way of speaking.

Sure, grammar still exists, and it’s important, but what constitutes accurate grammar is no longer purely dictated by dusty tomes and ageing professors – think of the number of supermarkets offering customers a ‘ten items or less’ aisle, when it should be ‘ten items or fewer’. It’s a war of attrition – if enough people speak in a certain way – as we can clearly see online now – then should that way not be recognised as ‘correct’?

The Bad

Inevitably, some of the ways that the digital world has affected language have been less positive.

Language now moves and develops at such a rapid rate, that it can actually divide people. Many of us will have sighed after one of our parents or older relatives has asked ‘what’s a meme’ (possibly pronouncing it ‘mehmeh’, the ultimate sin.), or who have mistaken ‘lol’ to mean ‘lots of love’ and sent a seemingly cruel text to someone who needed some moral support.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon that in the space of a single lifetime (even sometimes a few years), so many words and grammatical forms can come and go that the speech of our juniors actually doesn’t seem to make sense to us – and it would be fair to say that digital technology and interconnectivity play a big part in this.

There’s also the ‘anti-social media’ argument. It’s not uncommon to hear complaints or concerns over the amount of time young people in particular spend on social media.

Fundamentally, these platforms are built to keep us connected – but there’s an argument that due to their screen-based and impersonal nature, they actually do more harm than good, and if they’re the medium through which language – an inherently social thing – is evolving, could this be harmful?

The Smiley

One of the most interesting ways that the digital frontier has shaped language, might not initially seem like it has anything to do with language at all.

The rise of the humble emoji might seem like something cute and quaint, but content marketers and language analysts would be wise to quake in fear at the eminent and expanding power of these little yellow demi-gods.

Emojis have the power to transcend language. Big statement, we know, but it’s true. Spoken and written language are always inhibited in some form or another, by one or more things.

To be able to understand someone speaking to you, you need to be able to speak their language, understand their dialect, register their tone etc.

To read, or write, you need to not only know a language, but how to record and interpret it graphically. Communicating with someone who isn’t able to do one or more of these things is difficult – these integral features of spoken and written communication create barriers (and shouty tourists).

Emojis, on the other hand, aren’t restricted by this. All it takes to understand an emoji is a basic grasp of facial contortion and human emotion/expression, or the ability to recognise simple emblems – while of course this may be difficult for some, it’s far less restrictive and complex than the spoken or written word.

These little graphic devils are also fast becoming a powerful tool in online marketing. It’s now possible to search specifically for an emoji in the same way we search for a hashtag, and more and more symbols are being added to the emoji ‘dictionary’ all the time – it’s even possible for brands to create their own, personalised emoji symbols.

Possibly the most fascinating thing about all of this, is the paradox in the way that emoji use is simultaneously pushing our digital society forward, and harking back to some of the earliest forms of communication. In essence, you could say emojis were hieroglyphs. Had we only listened to wise words of The Bangles, and done as they’d asked… we’re not walking like egyptians – we’re writing like them.

Why is this important for digital marketers?

At its heart, digital marketing is all to do with language. All the data-analysis and tech wizardry aside, the crux of what marketers do is find ways to put a message in front of people, and articulate that message in such a way that said people engage with it. Language is utterly essential to this – and remaining in touch with the way people use language is crucial.

These same principles apply when you’re considering the experience required when recruiting a marketer, hiring a digital agency or developing your own marketing skills. In order to succeed in today’s digital environment, the core skill sets have fundamentally changed as the Google algorithm has got smarter.

With engagement now considered to be an important factor for SEO, Social Media and Paid Media campaigns, it’s not all about how technically proficient you are, but more importantly how engaging your content is – basically, it’s all about how good at words you are.

Marketers need to stay in touch with the way people talk and communicate, and apply this knowledge in alignment with your target market and brand identity.

In an ideal world, there should be an authentic and relevant tone of voice that resonates with your audience. There’s no point using slang and abbreviated forms of communication if this isn’t part of your audience’s every day lexicon – it just comes across as insincere and a bit shit.

Digital marketers and SEOs, in particular, also need to understand how to carefully use the very same language to appeal to people and search engines alike, which can be a tricky balancing act.

Final Thoughts

The issue of the development of language is a complex but thoroughly compelling one. There’s little doubt digital technology has redefined the world in innumerable ways; the way we communicate and the language we use have been reshaped – possibly forever.

The relevance to those of us who work with language on a daily basis is twofold. 1 – we need to keep up to date with the way people talk online and in person.

We need to know what people say, why they say it, and when it’s a good idea to say it ourselves. 2 – possibly more importantly, we need to remain constantly aware that language is evolving – faster than it ever has before.

In a world where words can appear, disappear, and take on new meaning in such a short space of time, staying tapped into our evolving language has never been more important.

As with almost all facets of society and culture, language will always change. New technology will emerge that will alter the way we speak and communicate, and I’ll have to rewrite this article. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes. At least we can stay safe in the knowledge that if a talking T-Rex were to become a reality, we could bamboozle him simply by speaking in Tumblr.

Gooey Digital
31st May 2021

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