7 Ways the Internet Is Improving Language


How is language evolving on the Internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

A recent study found that people who use internet slang are actually better at standard English too. It sounds surprising, but Jacob Eisenstein, the lead author and an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, explained that “Non-standard English is not a question of ability, but of reserving standard English for the right social situations. In this sense, heavy social media users have an especially nuanced understanding of language, since they maintain multiple linguistic systems.”

Here are seven ways that communication on the internet is making our language more dynamic and flexible.


One kind of hashtag, the index hashtag, lets people from all over the world talk about a shared topic of interest. The other kind of hashtag, the commentary hashtag, lets us express our feelings on two levels, a topic plus a commentary or backchannel. And interestingly, a recent study has shown that people tend to use more standard language in tweets with hashtags, and more informal, regional language in tweets with @-mentions, showing that we understand how to adjust our language for different audiences.


The judicious use of internet slang can indicate informality and comfort. The choice of "u" instead of "you" or rlly instead of really can tell the reader that you're comfortable and relaxed, like putting on your comfy sweatpants rather than a nice outfit.


It's never been easier to add pictures of various kinds to our writing, from emoji to reaction gifs to photos and video clips we take ourselves, especially on picture-centered social apps like Snapchat and Instagram. In real life, we're not disembodied voices, so why should we be so online?


We've ingeniously adapted the like/star/heart/+1 symbols to indicate not just liking but also the end of a back-and-forth conversational thread on social media. When you've had a somewhat asynchronous conversation on Facebook or Twitter or another social network, sometimes it's dying out but you don't want to leave the other person wondering whether you've run out of things to say or just haven't seen their most recent post. A like, star, or appropriate other symbol indicates that you've seen it and you still feel positive about the conversation, but that you don't have anything left to say—without the bother of a formal sign-off.


Internet language has a whole host of subtle ways to indicate sarcasm, and it's a good thing, too, since none of the dozens of proposals for irony punctuation have caught on.


When you post a tweet, you have the option to indicate precisely where you're posting it from using your phone's GPS. Linguists have used these geotagged tweets to map who's using which forms of language where. Sometimes, this confirms what we already know: Speakers of Southern American English and African American English tend to pronounce the word "caught" differently from the word "cot"—and they also spell them differently on Twitter. Sometimes, this teaches us something new: such as that people in New York use "and all that" way more than the rest of the country, or that different regions prefer different swear words.


People who communicate with others a lot online simply have a lot more opportunities to practice writing than we've ever had. Before it became normal to text, email, and post on social media, most people stopped writing anything longer than a grocery list or a birthday card after they'd finished school. Now we're writing constantly, and as this XKCD comic points out, you'd expect people who are always casually throwing a baseball around to be much better at the formal game than people who never play catch: why should casual writing be any different?

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

Attention Business Travelers: These Are the Countries With the Fastest Internet

Whether you travel for business or pleasure, high-speed internet seems like a necessity when you’re trying to connect with colleagues or loved ones back home. Of course, the quality of that connection largely depends on what part of the world you’re in—and if you want the best internet on earth, you’ll have to head to Asia.

Singapore might be smaller than New York City, but it has the fastest internet of any country, Travel + Leisure reports. The city-state received the highest rating from the World Broadband Speed League, an annual ranking conducted by UK analyst Cable. For the report, Cable tracked broadband speeds in 200 countries over several 12-month periods to get an average.

Three Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—followed closely behind Singapore. And while the U.S. has the fastest broadband in North America, it comes in 20th place for internet speed globally, falling behind Asian territories like Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as European countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Spain. On the bright side, though, the U.S. is up one place from last year’s ranking.

In the case of Singapore, the country’s small size works to its advantage. As a financial hub in Asia, it depends heavily on its digital infrastructure, and as a result, “there is economic necessity, coupled with the relative ease of delivering high-speed connections across a small area,” Cable notes in its report. Within Singapore, 82 percent of residents have internet access.

Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, on the other hand, have all focused on FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) connections, and this has boosted internet speeds.

Overall, global broadband speeds are rising, and they improved by 23 percent from 2017 to 2018. However, much of this progress is seen in countries that are already developed, while underdeveloped countries still lag far behind.

“Europe, the United States, and thriving economic centers in the Asia-Pacific region (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) are leading the world when it comes to the provision of fast, reliable broadband, which suggests a relationship between available bandwidth and economic health,” Dan Howdle, Cable’s consumer telecoms analyst, said in a statement. “Those countries leading the world should be congratulated, but we should also be conscious of those that are being left further and further behind."

[h/t Travel + Leisure]


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