From inside joke to Webster’s.

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I learned in college that language is constantly changing, and yet it is really hard to detect any of those changes in a lifetime.

Just like stars. They seem to be in the same place every night. But viewed from the same spot over the course of hundreds of years they do in fact change position in the sky.

But that lecture was pre-internet. And pre-4chan.

In the 90’s I was slightly more of a geek than I am now and started playing a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) called Ultima Online, the game that gave birth to EverQuest, Worlds of Warcraft and the rest.

If you’re familiar with these games you know that to survive and thrive you need to join what’s called a guild. Guilds are groups of players that meet in game to get stuff done – like kill dragons. They also use message boards – like 4Chan and Somethingawful.com – to stay connected while not in game.

It was in these guilds, and on these boards, that I was first exposed to some of the architects of Internet slang. The originators of LOLcats and Rickrolling and all the other Meme’s that started out as inside jokes. I was able to witness the evolution (or was it mutation) of our language. At a pace that would have my professor’s head spin.

People love to mess with language on the Internet. They do it for fun, to demonstrate their cleverness and impress their peers. It’s a form of social currency. To be in at the start of a Meme is a badge of honor. It can make you “internet famous”.

What’s amazing about the Internet, as we all know, is that there are no walls between networks of people. Something that originates in even the most tight-nit of communities can easily spill over to another network.

“Leetspeak” (or 1337speak), for instance, in which some letters are replaced with numbers, has its origins in the coder community and Bulletin Board Systems of a billion years ago. Leetspeak helped give birth to LOLcats and lolspeak. Today you are more likely to get sent a LOLcat from your grandma than someone from 4Chan. In only the Internet could two such divergent communities share a connection.

It’s this fluidity that makes the Internet the ideal medium for rapid language change.

Inside jokes aren’t the only per generators of language change, though. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s true for language as well.  Txt spk,  abbreviations and acronyms designed to deliver super short and efficient messages, came into being largely because it was a pain in the ass to type out a message on a cell phone. Who knew what TMI, OMFG, and WTF meant ten years ago? Of course it’s generally agreed that people who say LOL out loud deserve a slap on the back of the head.

Advances in technology have always played a role in the changing of language. There wasn’t a word for book until someone invented the book. What’s different now is the rate in which new technologies are adopted. “Google” is as widely used a verb as “search”, yet wasn’t around five years ago.

There has always been slang, but slang had been largely contained within groups. The Internet allows slang – Internet and otherwise – to more rapidly spill out beyond the walls of a group into the larger mainstream. We live in a world where language can change before our eyes. Personally, I find this exciting.

What do you think?

Or said another way, wH@ d0 J00 7H1nK?

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