Rapping on Digital Bilingualism & the evolution of online language in the 21st century.
Whether we realize it or not, most of us are inherently bilingual, speaking two or more languages in a much different way than ever before.
Before the internet in 6th grade, I spoke 4 languages: English, bad English, even worse Spanish — embarrassing since I’m half Argentinian — and like many silly kids growing up in 90s Queens, New York…I thought I could rap.
In the age of Big Pun & Fat Joe ruling the Bronx next door, with Eminem erupting into pop culture stardom, my friends & I could see a viable future. We would imagine our inevitable successes as rap icons by reciting the lyrics to Nas, 2pac & Biggie, and too many subculture throwback references like A Tribe Called Quest & Bone Thugs-n-Harmony…
CUT TO: Summer camp later that year, where a talent show presented campers — including yours truly— the chance to perform for a full 5 minutes and embarrass themselves to the best of their ability in front of visiting parents & peers alike.
Never one to be intimidated by public shame, I not only rapped as MR. SUPREME, but wrote my own song called WARNING (for real, warning: these terrible lyrics cannot be unheard):
Hey Hey Hey, yippeeyo, yippeyay, Mr. Supreme is back, hiphooray!
I’m a natural disaster, born as a juvenile hazard-
Mess with me and you’re fucking with a jedi master-
Upon which, I was escorted off stage — disqualified for my vulgar language, but most certainly for my hip hop abomination.
Rap was a musical language I knew, but clearly didn’t understand. Like most languages of any form or fashion, they take time to comprehend and use correctly, let alone to master. Jedi or not.
But then came The Internet…
While my poser rap career came and went, language continued to evolve online in a variety of structures, dialects, semantics, syntax, grammar, and slizzy-slang.
Now I can’t possibly unpack the entire lineage of language & the intersecting emergence of the internet for time’s sake, but we do know where they both converged:
Not since the printing press has language faced such a technological boom with almost infinite accessibility & adaptability. Language used online quickly spread to mobile, where for the first time in history, humans were communing simultaneously in a sort of digital bilingualism: like learning the principles of any language, we learned to speak in different ways online versus reality in hopes for more effective, concise communication.
But there was a lot of trial & error. Anyone with AOL remembers the doomsday sirens of broadband dialup that ushered in the crude beginnings of email & instant messenger which first spawned acronyms like LOL, LMAO, ROFL, OMG, IRL, BRB, TMI… I got that one a lot…and so forth.
The list of acronyms now, as they were then, are subject to the trending winds of generational culture, but are they truthfully streamlining language online…or destroying it altogether? Are we on our way to establishing a more universal language, or have acronyms already given way to emojis which seem to emulate modern-day hieroglyphics? And is that so bad, language that doesn’t speak to us, but presents itself like a picture book of deeper associations?
It certainly has its dangers. For one, we need to define acronym, which is usually defined as “a pronounceable word created out of the initials or major parts of a compound term,” like NATO, radar or TriBeCa. But LOL is perhaps the most ubiquitous of these acronyms.
According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the first recorded use of LOL is from the May 1989 edition of the FidoNews Newsletter (yes, a doggy magazine). But how many people are actually ‘laughing out loud’ when they send LOL?
Apparently, not many. In a 2016 study by Duke University on the current use of online language between age groups 15–35, researchers found that LOL is used by participants in the flow of conversation as mostly a signal of empathy or understanding, just as one might use a short laugh or a nod to show acknowledgement.
The current standard bearer of definitions, the Oxford English Dictionary, includes LOL and other similar acronyms. THE OED reasons that these acronyms have established “strong connotations in the language of electronic communications and are generally accepted for their ease of use.”
But is that really true? And is that a valid answer to admit new words into our lexicon, merely for their popularity and ease alone?
The linguistic waters start to become murky…
Acronyms are often praised because of the myth they increase reading speed. However, they increase reading speed only if they are already familiar to the reader.
A review paper published in the journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest analyzed reading speeds with essays including acronyms & others without, and the rate barely fluctuated more than 0.5–2 words read more per minute. While other factors were considered, say a reader’s basic proficiency of the material, it was determined that comprehension will always be a trade-off between speed and accuracy.
Few acronyms, such as DNA, have become embedded in our memory. But more will take hold or be replaced in an ever-changing social media landscape of extremely personalized expression.
In a sense, LOL implicitly already works like emojis and emoticons do: when people send a smiley face, they may not actually be smiling; they simply want to convey that they’re feeling happy…which is the essence of language at its core, a desire to connect and relate to one another as a collective human creation.
Until telepathy exists , language is literally AND figuratively — regardless of what form or function it inhabits — the intersecting tether binding us all amidst our conflicting governments, different cultural idealogies, and has even helped mediate centuries of ongoing war.
The internet is still in its infancy, but has already had a significant impact on language at large. Some would say for the better, others for worse. Though we’ve all become digitally bilingual and more interconnected — so something must be working.
That said, we all must value the correct construction and history of language, not just to avoid an idiocracy of illiteracy (say that 3x fast), but to avoid risking what scholars refer to as language endangerment.
Language endangerment occurs when native speakers can no longer use, comprehend, or even decipher a language itself. Or worse, the language becomes a misused bastardization of what it once was, thus rendering it extinct and useless.
In David Mitchel’s sprawling scifi epic, Cloud Atlas, there’s a section which features a distant future Earth where most human knowledge has been destroyed or forgotten, and language itself had devolved into a post-apocalyptic English that’s barely recognizable, often including strange capitaliZation in the miDDle of words & eliminating spaces insentencesaltogether. With plenty of fragmented and run-on sentences, like these last two sentences (see?).
While the native society had a strong community, bonded by good morale & ethical principles, they struggled to grasp deep intricate concepts, establish literacy of any kind, and couldn’t maintain their history through either physical recording/writing or oral tradition. As a major consequence, they lost a large part of their identity and culture.
While language forms have always gone extinct throughout human history, more natively spoken languages have been disappearing at an accelerated rate in the 20th and 21st centuries due to many processes of globalization.
A recent consensus by the United Nations Education & Culture Council reports that there are currently between 6,000 -7,000 languages still spoken as of 2018, and that between 50–90% of those will become extinct by the year 2100.
That’s not too far off from now…and like you, I can’t wait to see what’s so worth LOLing about. Hopefully we can still talk about it.
But for now…BRB.