Does internet-derived dialect enrich our written language?

Instead of butchering our language, internet slang makes us better in expressing ourselves in jovial way.


If there’s a skill that I could list on my résumé but kind of irrelevant for job’s or grad school’s application, it would be, “Fluent in internet slang.” In fact, I suppose by now everyone must at least have some kind of proficiency in it. But, before we’re going even further, the parts of internet linguistic that I’m going to cover are Tumblr-speak and 4chan’s greentext. I choose these two because they have unique traits that worth to be inspected in linguistic lens.

I also need to lay down that my cultural analysis is focused on the internet culture in the English-speaking countries because ultimately, English is our lingua franca of the internet. While I do believe there must have been internet subculture in every country, I think my generalization has at least one core similarity. That is, writing in netspeak makes us better in expressing ourselves.

In Tumblr, lots of people use non-standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation. After observing it for quite a while, there are three distinct characteristics that frequently reoccurred in general Tumblr-speak:

  1. The fragmentation of sentences to express disbelief/emotional upheaval (e.g., “Did you just?”, “Can you not?”, “This!”, “I can’t even.”).
  2. The lack of proper capitalization combined with the frequent omission of full stops and commas to produce run-on sentences (e.g., “when did tumblr collectively decided not to use punctuation like when did this happen why is this a thing”, “it just looks so smooth i mean look at this sentence flow like a jungle river”, “i can’t tell you how many posts people make like this and everyone just reads it fluidly like how is that even possible i don’t”, “the most amazing thing is our ability to understand it and know where the breaks are in the sentences like right now you paused just there didn’t you because you’re smart and wonderful here have a cookie”).
  3. The stylized phrases to show emphasis or enthusiasm (e.g., “people tyPE LIKE THIS”, “r e a l l y weird”, “[INTENSIFIES]”, “sdfjsdklfjnflskj” or more commonly known as ‘keyboard smashers’).
Example of Tumblr-speak.

Tumblr’s post-modern play in grammar-bending is similar to having a conscious, rambling thought. The readers process the texts better because of the established collective consciousness between each other. They try to recreate spoken language in written format, so other people can receive and understand what they’re trying to say as efficiently as possible.

Additionally, Tumblr enable us to input animated GIFs. Animated GIFs, specifically the reaction types, are incredibly reliable to convey complex emotions. There are, after all, a wide spectrum of happy and sad, and reaction GIFs can be substituted as visual shorthand. Why the audience can relate to them quickly is because of their recognizable elements that derived from popular scenes. Whether they’re from clips of a movie or famous lines of a celebrity, if they’re being used correctly and in tune with the emotional context, they can leverage how we deliver emotions when narrative text cannot.

In the slightly same vein, 4chan’s greentext may be a bit different than Tumblr-speak’s optimistic feel and its hyperbolic nature. 4chan originally used “>” to quote other users in the board, but its function has morphed into conversational cues. The greentext stories allow writers to describe the scene they’re having in narrative mode and make everyone else participate emotionally. Mix this with 4chan’s anonymity and we’ll get creativity rarely seen elsewhere. Often times, the writers take advantage of this method and eventually people will fall for their bait-and-switch fashion in no time.

Example of 4chan’s greentext.

Yet, to understand 4chan’s greentext, we must understand 4chan’s personality as a whole. 4chan is widely credited with being the source of many online memes, making it an excellent venue for innovation. The site’s ephemerality is critical on the ongoing influence on internet culture because it provides the community an effective selection mechanism. I wholeheartedly agree when Christopher Poole (also known as “moot”), the founder of 4chan, said that anonymity helps foster creativity. As he put it, “It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content. Only ideas that resonate with the broader community persist, creating the most ideal conditions for the production of viral content, which established 4chan as one of the Web’s earliest ‘meme factories.’”

The driving force behind people doing all of this internet silliness is not because they’re too ignorant to use proper grammar nor lazy, but pure imagination. The writers clearly understand what they’re saying and they’re self-conscious about their decisions to make those obscure linguistic patterns. Internet is a relatively new media where people still learning to figure how it works, and platforms like Tumblr and 4chan trigger their users to venture how they should communicate with each other.

David Crystal, a linguist scholar, viewed this experimentation as an evidence of the creativity of its users. They try to add new elements and get rid of the old ones to suit their personal needs. Because netspeak is loosely structured, it becomes more playful and makes us more socially interactive. It also equips us with lively replacements for preexisting paralinguistic signals, such as the use of quotes to signify spoken words can be replaced with Tumblr-speak and italics to signify internal thoughts with “>”.

Furthermore, albeit what the prescriptivists said that internet slang is wrecking the beauty of our language, Crystal stated that young people today read and write more than his generation ever did because of their constant exposure of the internet. He then further explained that young people don’t need persuading that they should read, as it’s obvious enough by the fact that they’re reading all the time in their digital devices. Moreover, they can just casually code-switch into more professional tone in their academic essays or written examinations, because they’re very well aware that it’s not appropriate to use internet slang at those exact moments.

The only problem — and it’s a tiny one — I could find in any kind of computer-mediated communication is its facetiousness. I cannot take someone seriously if they mourn their loved ones by using reaction GIFs. They may be genuinely sad at that time and need to express their emotions in lightweight manners, but in our shared beliefs, internet linguistics are often structured and perceived as jokes. It may allow us in writing sarcasm or irony better. However, when people want to express sad emotions like sorrow or grief by using internet slang, it came across as buffoonery.

In spite of this minor flaw, I still feel netspeak is valuable and it definitely partakes in the evolution of our language. I genuinely hope someone will write a book in Tumblr-speak or 4chan’s greentext for experimentation’s sake, just like the guy who translated Moby Dick into emoji (with a delicious pun titling, Emoji Dick). Of course, like any tropes, these trends may (or may not) wither and die in the future. They may be replaced with more novel and interesting methods to articulate our emotions, but in the meantime, i think typing like this is very fun u wot m8 u fukin wot m8 who r u to disagree with me?