As social media takes over the English dictionary, how does the language change, and why should its speakers care? This opinion article traces the acceptance of slang into mainstream English to uncover the benefits and detriments of a truly global language.
You might relate to this scenario: when I was growing up, my parents stressed that I had to learn English to be successful. In a globalised world, English is everywhere. You want a job in marketing, international relations, HR? You better know English. But while many have written a wealth of articles on globalisation’s impact on learning English, not as many have paused to think about how the language itself—and our own identities as its speakers—is changing in the 21st century. English is not what it used to be. Just ask Oxford Dictionaries, whose 2015 Word of the Year is :).
If you are just the least bit active on social media, you will have realised that the Internet teems with what, for lack of a better word, I call “emojispeak”. Some of its terms, like selfie, have left the Twittersphere and are now widely familiar. Others, like pwn, Brexit or omnishambles are only known to a specific demographic. Still others, like fatberg or doxx, I must confess I’ve never heard of. But what might be more surprising is that all these creations, and many others, are not just slang: they are officially words included in dictionaries.
OK, so why does that matter? For two reasons specifically. Firstly, English is now at its expanding, creative best, and is wonderfully (or dangerously, depending how you look at it) becoming a truly global language. It’s not just us third culture kids having to learn English; English learns other languages too. Who hasn’t felt a bit of schadenfreude when the guy who always mocks them for not being on time actually turns up late himself? Who hasn’t rolled his eyes and slowly explained to their friend that they’re not just watching cartoons, this is anime! But while anime, kindergarten or bazaar are loanwords originally existing in other languages, social media creations exist only in the language they were produced: English. If anyone, from any cultural background, can create an official word in English, what does this mean for the identity of the language, and our identity as its speakers?
Consider French. You won’t find lumbersexual in French, and unfriend is no different there than the general “retirer,” i.e. remove. French, in general, has been far more isolated than English when it comes to new words, or indeed any changes at all. The simple removal of the circumflex (the accent cap on the î or û) went viral last month and prompted its own #JeSuis solidarity movement (referring originally to the 2015 Paris terror attacks) on social media as #JeSuisCirconflexe defended the language’s purity. The backlash was to be expected: the Economist recalls the waves of criticism produced in 1990s Germany after the ‘ß’ was mostly dropped as a letter. Intellectuals and publishing houses alike berated the change, and one region went as far as making the issue a political referendum. Our language is our identity. Linguistic determinism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, claims that language determines what we can and cannot think (at least to a certain extent). Now, on the good side, having English as a repository of all emerging dialects and sociolects means you are literally thinking globally: we’re capable of expressing and understanding much more now that we’ve absorbed other languages and social media into English. On the other hand, though, in becoming global, English has lost part of its identity. You might have never wondered why English doesn’t have any funky-looking letters or accent marks like ñ or ç. But it matters. English is not the easiest language in the world, but it is fairly streamlined and faceless. No local spices, no exotic fruits. In allowing itself to be molded back and forth like a ball of clay, English has become that small oval in the middle of a Venn diagram: it belongs to everyone, but it cannot identify itself with one culture as easily as most of the world’s languages can.
The second reason this discussion is important is a bit more practical. Who decides what a word is? Blog posts, disapproving teachers, and even parents will tell you that ain’t ain’t a word, and you shouldn’t use it. The status of ain’t, though, is exactly the same as pwn: they both have a dictionary entry even though “pwning someone” is considered far from ‘proper.’ By the mass addition of such fringe, social media-born terms into our dictionaries, we are essentially legitimizing their usage and arguably, dumbing the language down. The informal, the slang, becomes mainstream. Of course, words for new phenomena or technology (selfie, drone, fiscal cliff) are always welcome. But bae? Columbusing? (Thankfully, Oxford Dictionaries have decided against that one). Legitimizing social media slang for concepts we already have words for is redundant and even premature: pwn, which I’ve made use of quite a lot here, is already going out of fashion. On Reddit, the term rekt is about ten times more common, and they mean the same thing.
It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? But behind the silliness and happy-face emojis lie more far-reaching consequences. English has become a truly global language while giving up its intrinsic identity and dumbing itself down in a way that other languages would not be so inclined to follow. Proper English, with its old-fashioned syntax and diction symbolising both a good education and adherence to culture, is in danger of becoming overshadowed by all-inclusive but hollow emoticons. Mind you; it is not as bad as Newspeak; “emojispeak” has its benefits, as explained. But perhaps we should think twice about what we mean by filling up dictionaries with the first reaction we see on Facebook.