It’s a big jump from Samuel Johnson to the digital age, and the likes of Alan Turing (1912-1954), Tim Berners-Lee (1955-), Bill Gates (1955-) and Steve Jobs (1955-2011), and there have been those in between who have exerted considerable influence on the language. They include the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray (1837-1915) and his successors. But none, I suggest, have changed the language and our approach to it, as radically as those who have given us the means of cheap, instant, worldwide, mass communication. We have become so accustomed to it that it is easy to forget how new it all is, but the technology of the past 25 years has enabled more people now to read and write more often than ever before, and, for the moment, the language they use is overwhelmingly English.
Tom Chatfield’s ‘Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World’ records some of the ways in which the language has responded. The BBC gave a useful summary of the book in April this year, and Stan Carey has reviewed it.
Technology means that we send text messages and emails, play video games and converse in chat rooms, although that last already sounds dated. LOL has become widely used, and no longer means simply ‘laughing out loud’, as Stan Carey has shown here, and developed by John McWhorter’s talk to which Stan links. We also have OMG, FYI, meh, the hash tag and emoticons. It has produced the verbs tweet, friend and unfriend, follow and unfollow, like and unlike. My Facebook friends have even produced their own word. When they meet IRL (in real life), they call the gathering a Friendzy.
There is a question to be considered about the extent to which the new words and new grammatical structures will migrate from the virtual world to the real world. Fears have been expressed that the way in which the young in particular use the language in texting and other forms of computer mediated communication will spill over into other contexts. David Crystal has given good evidence that this is not happening. But if we look ahead, it may turn out that any difference that exists now between the virtual world and the real world will become irrelevant. When most communication is electronic, the language will adapt, as it has always adapted, to changing social conditions.