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

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Chelsea are interested in loaning out Romelu Lukaku to Everton again next season
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

    Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Analyst

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This is an exce...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?