Say what you see: How language is being transformed by the way we type - rather than the way we speak

The rise of social media has put "conversation without speech" at the centre of millions of lives, as Tom Chatfield explains

Where once speech was the driving force behind language change, we are moving into an era where writing – or, more precisely, the act of typing on to screens – is a dominant form of verbal interaction. And this has brought with it an accelerating transformation of not only the words we use, but how we read each others' lives.

Consider the emoticon: a human face sketched from three punctuation marks. Born during the course of an early online discussion in 1982, courtesy of computer scientist Scott Fahlman, it addressed one central absence of onscreen words: a human face able to indicate emotional tone.

Fahlman coined two basic expressions – "happy" and "sad" (signalling "joking" and "not joking" respectively) – but further variations almost immediately began to spring up, stretching today into many thousands. Aside from bewildering ingenuity, one thing all of these share is that they are unpronounceable: symbols aimed at the eye rather than at the ear, like an emotionally enriched layer of punctuation.

There's nothing inherently new about such effects. In 1925, the American professor George Krapp coined the phrase "eye dialect" to describe the use of selected mis-spellings in fiction signalling a character's accent without requiring a phonetic rendering of their speech. Mark Twain, for example, used just a handful of spelling variations to convey the colourful speech of his character Jim in Huckleberry Finn (1884), such as "ben" for been and "wuz" for was.

The "z" of Twain's wuz might have a strangely contemporary feel to some readers, courtesy of the so-called "internet z" – a common typo for the letter "s" that has taken on a new life in typed terms such as "lulz", denoting an anarchistic flavour of online amusement via the mangling of the acronym "laughs out loud" (LOL).

While he was a master of visual verbal effects, Twain wouldn't have recognised the strange reversal of traditional relationships between written and spoken language that something like LOL represents. For, where once speech came first and writing gradually formalised its eccentricities, we're now typing some terms and only then learning to speak them.

LOL itself features increasingly in speech (either spelt out or pronounced to rhyme with "doll") together with its partner in crime, OMG (Oh My God!), while some of the more eccentric typo-inspired terms used in online games (to "pwn" someone, meaning to subject them to a humiliating defeat) can't even be said out loud. And if that lies outside your experience, consider the familiarity with which almost all of us now say "dot com" or talk about a "dotcom" business: a web-induced articulation of punctuation that would have inconceivable in any other era.

These may sound like niche preoccupations but, in the past few years, the rise of social media has put what you might call "conversation without speech" at the centre of millions of lives. Every single day sees more than 100 billion emails and 300 million tweets sent. Video, audio and images are increasingly common, too, with more than 72 hours of new video uploaded to YouTube every minute. Yet almost all our onscreen exchanges still begin and end with words, from comments and status updates to typed search queries and the text message.

There's something magnificent about our capacity for cramming emotional shading into even the most constricted of verbal arenas, and making them our own. From text messages with more punctuation appended than most standard paragraphs to tweets with startlingly elaborate subtexts spelled out via hash tags (#gently- selfmocking), our creativity knows few bounds – together with our ability to read between the lines and convert even the unlikeliest sequence of 140 characters into a human story.

Similarly, the democratisation of written words is an astonishing thing, not least because it gifts permanence to so much that has historically been lost – and supplants those speaking on others' behalf with an opportunity to directly encounter every individual's words.

Yet there are hazards and seductions within our ingenuity. As writers, our words belong to the world rather than simply to us, and they can be both read and used in ways we cannot foresee – not to mention aggregated, shared, copied and analysed for far longer than we ourselves may exist.

Then, too, there's the fact that we cannot see or know what the faces behind typed words are actually doing; or what the grand performance of social-media selves conceals as well as reveals. We are, in this sense, vulnerable precisely because of our lavish linguistic talents. We cannot help but read our own meanings into everything we see, forgetting the breadth of the gulf between words and world.

"The man who does not read," Twain once wrote, "has no advantage over the man who cannot read." What might he have made, though, of the man who only reads, or does not know how to listen?

Professionally and personally, we live in an age where the messy self-exposure of speech – of even a conversation by phone or Skype – can seem at once too self-exposing and ephemeral to be useful. Onscreen, typing, the world seems clean and comprehensible; ripe for copying, pasting, sorting and – if necessary – for the most careful construction of even the most spontaneous-seeming quip.

We have never been more privileged as readers and writers, or more finely attuned to the subtexts that can lurk within even a single letter. Yet conversation is an art that must not be supplanted, not least because it reminds us of what the screen cannot say; and of the constant fiction between what is thought, written and understood, and whatever truths lie behind these.

Tom Chatfield's book, 'Netymology: a Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World' is published by Quercus

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer - 2nd & 3rd Line

    £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The IT Support Engineer is needed to ass...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior / Mid Software Developer

    £22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Service Desk Manager

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity to join a p...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones