Has social media changed the way we speak and write English?

There’s no denying that social media has transformed the way we interact with each other. From sharing our thoughts and photos to planning a night out, most people tend to organise their social lives, or at least have it significantly influence them, through some form of technology-based engagement. But, has this shift away from more physical interaction actually affected the way we speak and write English?

Speed freaks: the increasing rate of communication

What social media has done is enable us to communicate with a much larger number of people on a global scale in a way that we only really used to be able to do on a local level. This is great when it means we’re keeping friendships alive over great distances, but it’s also increasing the demands placed on an individual to keep a much larger number of relationships going simultaneously. For example, the average number of friends a person has on Facebook in the UK is around 300 – even if you’re only actually really friends with, say, 10% of that number that’s still 30 friendships to be maintaining.

The result? An ever-increasing speed of communication. Facebook lets you communicate quickly, effectively and, most importantly, efficiently because written exchanges are concise and shared between all the friends you are connected with, meaning you only need to write them once. On Twitter there’s a 140 character limit, so even if you’re not against the clock you are quite literally forced to make the statement brief.

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The use of acronyms (an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word) are now commonplace substitutes to whole sentences; LOL (laugh out loud), OMG (Oh my God), TTYL (talk to you later) are just a few that demonstrate how social media speeds things up by lessening the need to write longer phrases and reduces space.

🙂 or 😉

Emoticons (a representation of a facial expression such as a smile or frown, formed by various combinations of keyboard characters) and used to convey what the user is feeling or to express the intended tone without actually having to write it. You could argue that this is a lazy form of writing, but social media isn’t a process of creative writing (at least not in the traditional sense), it’s a fast and convenient way of interacting with an audience.

The impact of this on speech in the real world

Language is an evolving thing. It’s naive to think that the language of social media isn’t having an effect on the way we use English in day-to-day life. It’s more appropriate to consider just how much of an effect it’s having on the way we communicate.

A whole host of words originating from social media and the wider Internet have become so commonplace that they’ve now slipped into popular usage, and we don’t even realize it. Just a few interesting words that have their origins in technology are blogosphere (the collective word for personal websites called blogs), troll (someone who creates conflict online by starting arguments or upsetting people) and buzzword (a word or phrase that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context). Even some acronyms have made the transition into everyday speech as words, ‘lol’ for example.

Another curious phenomenon we’ve seen in recent years is the reappropriation of existing words and words based on brands to refer primarily to their social media context. Reappropriation is the cultural process by which a group claims words that were previously used in a certain way and gives them a new meaning. In this way the people who engage with social media are quite literally creating new words and giving new meanings to existing words.

‘Friended’ and ‘unfriended’ are two examples of words that have been given a new meaning due to their usage online. The word ‘friend’ and ‘befriend’ is from Old English originating in the 13th Century, but it has been given an entirely new meaning thanks to Facebook (the process of adding or removing someone from your circle of friends). ‘Like’ and ‘viral’ are other popular examples of words that have had their meaning reappropriated by social media.

There are even instances of online brands becoming so powerful that words have crept into the English language based on them. ‘Google’ is the world’s leading search engine and it has become so universal in its usage that the phrase ‘Google it’ has virtually replaced the phrase ‘search for it’ in common speech. There are examples of this lifted directly from social media too; ‘tweet it’ refers to writing a message using Twitter, but has essentially come to mean ‘share it’.

So, has social media changed the way we speak and write English? Yes, undeniably.

Just think, ten years ago, if someone you’d just met asked you to “be their friend” or “Instagram” a photo of their lunch you’d have scratched your head and wondered if in fact they were feeling alright.