You don’t have to be too old to remember when everything online was referred to as “cyber-this” or “cyber-that”. In fact, the proliferation of words nodding to “cyberspace” was so overwhelming that in 1998, the New York Times predicted that “cyber” would soon be on its way out. It just wasn’t cool anymore.
In a way, the paper was right. Nobody really talks about cyberspace today – and web searches for the term have slumped over the past 10 years.
But phrases like “cyber attack” or “cyber crime” have actually become more popular in recent years. Curiously enough, cyber has come to be associated almost exclusively with things that are dark, nefarious or threatening.
“It really harkened back to the dystopian novel that the prefix cyber came from,” says University of Pittsburgh linguist Lauren B Collister, referencing the William Gibson sci-fi classic, Neuromancer. This, indeed, is how the word has been used by governments and authorities most frequently.
But while “cyber” has become niche and unfashionable, the words we use to refer to the internet generally have also evolved. A more subtle shift, perhaps, but a handful of linguists like Collister have noticed that we just don’t talk explicitly about “the internet” or even “the web” as much as we used to.
“I hear a lot more about ‘online’, ‘I went online’, I didn’t ‘go onto the internet’. Online in some ways I think has replaced some of the earlier locutions like ‘internet’ and ‘cyber’ because it’s one simple label,” explains Naomi Baron, professor of Linguistics at American University and author of “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.”
You don’t say, ‘I’ll look online’, you say ‘I’ll look on my phone’, because that is the physical device in front of you – Naomi Baron
The rise of the smartphone has also had an impact on how we talk about internet activity, suggests Baron. If someone asks their friend to find a restaurant nearby, they don’t make a point about using the internet, for example.
“You don’t say, ‘I’ll look online’, you say ‘I’ll look on my phone’, because that is the physical device in front of you,” she says.
“I think we’ve taken away the need to reference anything other than that which we physically have in front of us,” says Baron.
Collister adds that, of course, we also increasingly substitute the verb “to google” for phrases meaning to search online for information and say things like, “Let me ask Google” – even if Google isn’t the search tool that actually gets used. You might also have heard a friend say, “I’ll Facebook you” to mean they’ll send a message. This “verbing” of brand names is not new – think of “to hoover” or “to xerox” – but it certainly chimes with the common theme: that these technologies are becoming ever more ubiquitous and familiar. As such, the language associated with them does too.
Linguist and writer Gretchen McCulloch points out that other terms have become shortened and less formal. We don’t hyphenate “e-mail” anymore and hardly anyone, if they do mention “internet” in writing, will capitalise the “I”. Baron, when her book “Always On” was being edited, argued that “e-mail” should be written without a hyphen. The publisher, she says, insisted on the more traditional form. Style guides have always taken a little time to catch up with common parlance.
Baron makes another point. We tend to gravitate towards terminology that isn’t so technical or alien. Certainly, most people who use the web don’t know much about programming or internet architecture so language which refers directly to that is less popular.
“I think that’s part of why our language is changing,” she says, “because we’re not thinking about anything we don’t want to get involved with.”
Apps like Siri and Google Now encourage users to ask questions in a natural form of speech
There have also been changes in the language we use to interact with the web itself. Apps like Siri and Google Now encourage users to ask questions in a natural form of speech. Instead of inputting a boolean term such as “symptoms flu -fever” people commonly type and verbally ask questions like, “what are the symptoms of flu”. Predictive Google searches prove that this is the case - and it’s likely that Google probably wants us to communicate with it as naturally as possible, since that way we give up so much more about what we’re looking for and why.
For McCulloch, some of the most interesting changes in language have come from online interaction in recent years. She’s written about the grammar of the doge meme for example – in which unusual combinations of words, like “such” and “many” with nouns as standalone phrases make up a unique syntax and style specific to this one meme. That style has been parroted all over the web – and elsewhere.
Why do these trends take off?
“One of things we know from young people interacting face-to-face is it’s really important to show that you’ve done something different from other people,” says Baron, pointing out that the volume of linguistic innovations online is probably driven by this social desire to stand out. That may well come predominantly from groups of young people who popularise new mediums – like Facebook, Snapchat or Slack.
Does this mean that the internet has accelerated the pace of language change? It’s not clear, says McCulloch.
“I think there are two possible options for what’s going on here,” she says. “One is that the internet is genuinely speeding up the way that language is changing, the other is that it makes it feel like it’s faster because all of these trends that would have been effervescent in speech now have an illusion of longevity in writing.”
In other words, maybe we’re just more aware now of how language constantly gets re-shaped and re-moulded thanks to the fact that these innovations get shared in written forms online, for the whole web (potentially) to see.
McCulloch thinks it’ll be 20 years or so before we really have the data to show whether the pace of change has itself altered. Either way, the fact is that informality, which used to occupy – almost exclusively – the domain of speech, has now very definitely permeated the written word thanks to the web.
The ways in which we talk about technology – and how we communicate through it – are always changing. But the story of the internet’s impact on language is also very clearly the story of how we have embraced it, how we have assimilated that technology into our lives.
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