The Future of Onscreen Words

What does the act of typing onto billions of internet-connected screens mean for the future of language?

This is a specially edited and expanded excerpt from my new book about technology and language, Netymology.

I’ve never understood those who lament the internet as a kind of death for the English language. From photos and music to games and videos, mixed media surround us as never before. But billions upon billions of words still begin, end and inform our reactions to almost every single item on our screens. From “likes” and comments to text messages and status updates, language lurks within almost every onscreen exchange.

The twenty-first century is a hypertextual arena in several senses (hyper, ancient Greek: “over, beyond, overmuch, above measure”). Unlike their millennia-old written and printed antecedents, digital words are interconnected by active links: a fact whose astonishing implications were clear even in 1963 to the man who coined the word “hypertext”, Ted Nelson. But digital words are also above measure in their supply, their distribution, and the range of roles they play – from casual registers unthinkable a century ago to the most elaborately scholarly of debates and exegeses.

New things have always required new words, of course, and technological developments have fed into both written and spoken language since the earliest times. This is considerably trickier in some languages than others, thanks to the difficulty of expressing entirely novel words within fixed systems like symbolic characters (a computer in Mandarin is, for example, a diannao – 电脑 – which literally means an “electric brain”; while dian, meaning “electric”, itself originally described “lightning”).

With English, however, we have not only a language that has spent the best part of a millennium gleefully adopting new terms and ideas; we also have something truly international, whose history has become part of the history of countless places, peoples and movements. Today, globalization and new technology have vastly accelerated both the speed and the scale of linguistic evolution – a process that is blurring many boundaries between languages, dialects and registers to the point of disintegration.

Perhaps the greatest difference between digital and pre-digital times, however, is that it’s now a written (or, more precisely, a typed) rather than a spoken language driving these changes. The future of written words lies onscreen – and these screens are steadily transforming not only how we communicate, but what we mean and think.

The significance of the screen

Separated from human voices and faces, new conventions and registers are developing to express the emotional tone of typed words: from smiley faces built out of punctuation marks to subcultures of mockery and praise that adhere, in their own way, to unwritten etiquettes as elaborate as those of any Tudor court. Separated from pens and pages, too, these words are active agents in the world in a new sense: tools that can be countlessly replicated, adapted and shared.

For some people, this loosening and cheapening of words is a tragedy, dragging cultural standards ever closer to the gutter. For others, though – and I count myself among them – what’s happening is simply too big, too important and too exciting either to summarize or condemn.

Standard English, in which I’m typing these words, appeared over several centuries as the dominant form of ‘proper’ writing in our language. It was an enterprise that, for the first time, allowed the words we use to be regulated by reference to central authorities – dictionaries, grammars, experts. The fruits of this standardization include a truly global written culture and a clear, comprehensible language of official culture and organization.

Whether we like it or not, however, many of the official intentions behind Standard English are already unofficially defunct. For the first time in history, we live in a culture not only of mass literacy (itself a relatively recent revolution), but of mass participation in written discourse.

Online, reading and writing – which not so long ago were among the most costly and elite of human activities – are almost infinitely available at little or no cost. For better and for worse, we are no longer simply speakers of our own tongue: we are all becoming both authors and audiences.

Indeed, the art and science of computer programming has brought with it an entirely new species of language: a form of written expression whose terms encode not only meanings but also entire interactive systems. In an age of information technology, information itself is becoming the stuff of self-sustaining worlds – worlds that consume an increasingly substantial proportion of our attention, innovation, effort and desire for self-expression.

New kinds of collaboration

Sometimes it can all be overwhelming, with any attempt to describe the changes facing us almost instantly outdated. Indeed, perhaps the only and best solution to this situation is the internet itself: an eternally unfinished collaboration, pooling the words of many millions.

Writing and researching Netymology, I was both daunted and bewildered at times. Above all, though, I felt exhilarated – and lucky as a lover of language to be alive today. Many of the great scholars, sages and authors of the past would have given anything to possess what a single screen can offer me in an instant: tens of millions of books, hundreds of millions of pages, and over a billion human voices competing in articulate cacophony.

These new stories of our language can, I believe, conjure the fragmentary story of our present with a vividness appropriate to the experience of living it. For each etymology isn’t so much a complete tale as an ongoing negotiation – a balance of meanings and readings for which there can be few better images than the restless texture of the digital world itself.

One of my own favourite neologisms is, for example, the “Cupertino effect” – which describes what happens when a computer automatically “corrects” your spelling into something wrong or incomprehensible.

The name originates from an early spellchecking program’s habit of automatically transforming the word “cooperation” (when spelt without a hyphen) into “Cupertino”, the name of the California city in which Apple has its headquarters – a phenomenon first noted by English-language translators for the European Commission, whose early documents include helpful suggestions for “encouraging Cupertino between Member States.”

One of my favourite Cupertinos was my first computer’s habit of changing the name “Freud” into “fraud” – or, more recently, of my iPhone’s fondness for converting “soonish” into “Zionism”. In 2012, a text message intended to read “gunna be at west hall today” even led to the evacuation of an American high school, thanks to its automatic “correction” into “gunman be at west hall today before sending.

As Cupertinos suggest, onscreen language is both a collaboration and a kind of combat between user and medium. And if self-expression can sometimes be reduced to little more than clicking on “like”, there’s every bit as much pressure exerted in the opposite direction. If you can do it, someone, somewhere has probably already coined you a term - from “approximeeting”s with friends (arranging a rough time or place to meet, then sorting out details on the fly via mobile phone) to indulging in political “slacktivism” (ineffective activism carried out by clicking online petitions).

If the history of language teaches us anything, it’s that logic and reason come after the event with words – and that we are always saying more than we intend. Only time will tell what terms endure. For digital natives and immigrants alike, though, there’s much to celebrate in the constant flux of our tongue – not least in the reminders it offers of the human stories beneath even the most seamless of technology surfaces.

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