College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Has Internet Usage Changed Our English?

from The Daily Mississippian by Emily Cegielski

Juliet stands upon her balcony, crying into the night. The wind whips her nightgown around her legs, and she lets out a sigh.

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Romeo lies hidden, pondering what to do as Juliet finishes her soliloquy, and high school students all around the world wonder why he does not immediately come running.

Obviously, she is calling for him. She wants him. She needs him. She wonders where he could be. Right?

Wrong.

One of the most quoted lines of Shakespeare is also one of the most misunderstood. Juliet is not summoning the man of her dreams; she is questioning why he must be a Montague, an enemy, a foe. She is distressed, and she laments. She has no idea that Romeo is lurking in the shadows like a stalker.

As outdated as Romeo’s creepy behavior might be, the language used is even more obsolete, which is the cause of most students’ confusion.

No one uses “wherefore art thou” in today’s society. No one knows what it means. Language has evolved to the point where average students rely on “translations” of Shakespeare to pass high school English.

According to linguists, this gradual evolution of words is not something to fear but a cause for excitement.

“A very cool thing about the English language is its natural evolution,” said Donald Dyer, department of modern languages chair and linguistics professor at the University of Mississippi. “We hear people making up their own words or using words in a different context than what we are used to hearing. Often we think of these people as unintelligent, but the language they are using will become the norm in about 100 years.”

To make his point, Dyer uses the Elizabethan era as an example. People began mixing up forms of “ye” and “thou,” which eventually led to the modern “you.” Throughout history, words have come and gone, changed form and meaning and been completely obliterated.

Dr. Donald Dyer

This is nothing new.

But with the simultaneous emergence of technology and social media, a complete collapse of language seems to be at our doorstep. Many people think that texting and chatting have simplified language to the point of no return.

Most linguists disagree.

“What people mention when they lament the ‘deterioration of language’ is people straying from supposed grammar rules,” Douglas Bigham, editor-in-chief of Popular Linguistics magazine, said. “The truth of the matter is that these supposed ‘rules’ were never really ‘rules’ to begin with.”

Dyer says he agrees.

“It’s pretty easy to take pot shots at technology for affecting language,” Dyer said. “I will concede that it might have a limited effect on punctuation and vocabulary, but not on structure.”

In fact, today’s overreliance on technology has seemed to slow the natural evolutionary course of language.

“It appears as though technology simply doesn’t interact with the brain in the same way that face-to-face human communicative speaking does,” Bigham continued. “That is, regular old conversations still account for the majority of causes when language changes.”

As steadfast as these linguists are in their belief that language cannot deteriorate, not everyone buys it.

“Particularly with their ability to chat, students are losing their ability to communicate,” Ken Boutwell, assistant professor of mass media history at Ole Miss, said. “Technology has had a detrimental effect, and looking back in history, I can’t think of a time that has been impacted by anything as much as we have been impacted by social media.”

According to the Nielson Company, Americans spend approximately 8.18 hours a week on social networking sites. This statistic alone is reason to believe that technology and social media must be having an effect on the way we speak.

But languages worldwide evolve at a rate that is completely independent of technology use.

“It appears that the same forces of face-to-face driven change apply to all languages, not just English,” Bigham said. “Although some languages seem to change more quickly than others, it’s certainly not because of access to technology. If anything, technology slows language change because it connects more people.”

Whether technology has destroyed the basic structure of language or not, what cannot be denied is the technical jargon that has evolved due to social media.

Facebook has changed the meaning of “friend,” “poke” and “like.” Twitter has coined the terms “tweet,” “Twitterverse” and “Twitterati.” “Screenager,” (a person in his or her teens or 20s who has an aptitude for computers and the Internet) “cyberslacking” (using one’s employer’s Internet and e-mail facilities for personal activities during work hours) and “ego-surfing” (searching the Internet for instances of one’s own name or links to one’s own Web site) are all recent inductees into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although many people frown upon these words and usages, the creativity and intelligence behind each syllable, word and phrase cannot be denied.

While technology and social media are to thank for these particular sets of vocabulary, the creation of words goes back to the beginning of mankind.

Of the 17,677 words used in Shakespeare’s works, he created 1,700. Without Shakespeare’s imagination, commonly used words such as “frugal,” “critical,” “hurry,” “road” and “laughable” would be unknown. That’s not to mention the 47 well-known phrases he coined.

Back then, no one was blaming the quill. No one was complaining about a change in language. No one was worried, and according to Bigham, we should not be either.

“Unless you are a linguist who studies language change, there is no reason to be concerned with it,” he said.
So what should we be concerned about?

Death, destruction, war? The fact that creepers like Romeo still exist, except now we call them peeping Toms and pedophiles?

Language and communication skills are vital, but responsibility lies with each individual to harness and polish his or her talent. Accusing technology and social media of the destruction of words is like blaming coffee for the destruction of tea.

Tea might not be as popular as it once was, but lots of people still drink it. Not to mention, coffee is an inanimate object.

Technology, an inanimate object. Social media, although we might want to believe otherwise, inanimate.

We are the ones who control these things. We control language and the way it is used.  

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” Romeo croons. His voice breaks with passion for the girl he loves, and probably due to puberty.

These phrases often evoke the most intimate of scenes and romantic notions. However, Romeo is 14, speaking in cliches.

Words change. Phrases change. Sometimes we are just too selfish to realize that we are not the first to experience it.