OMG! What Is Happening To The English Language?

A discursive essay written as part of my English folio last year. I'm pretty proud of it.

In March this year, the popular initialisms “OMG”, “LOL” and “FYI” were accepted into the Oxford English dictionary, adding to the growing number of Internet-based “words” to be part of the official English language. In general, the knee-jerk reaction to this has been astoundingly negative; it seems that no one has thought to examine the equally likely possibility that the inclusion of such “unconventional” features could have a positive impact on the English language.

Consider: we, as humans, have shaped ourselves in an era of convenience, and our language has changed to suit. It has happened in the past, and will continue to in the future - as Heraclitus said: “Change is the only constant”. So what exactly is “unnatural“ about the involvement of Internet-based phraseology in our day-to-day lives? We must not allow language to stagnate, but embrace all new forms of expression.

By looking at a snapshot of the history of the English language, it is clear just how much our methods of communication have been sculpted. First, there was Old English: disorganised and without administration, the speech varied between regions, and the writing system itself underwent a massive shift, as the proliferation of the Latin alphabet eventually replaced the runic system. This confused it further, since dialects tended to distort the spellings, as words were generally scribed phonetically, meaning spellings alternated between regions, towns -- even works by the same author. Then, in the midst of the Norman occupation, Middle English manifested itself. This was a much more versatile language, with dialect being an even greater influence, and with a greater amount of words loaned both from Latin and Norman, though also with the simplification of syntax and the beginnings of a more structured grammatical system. Finally, this has all cumulated in Modern English spoken and written today, which is both expansive and stable, due to increasing literacy rates and the spread of British colonialism.

So, on one level these initialisms being given dictionary status could be seen as the next step in the evolution of language, the beginning of a new era in English. We cannot deem these idioms “ugly” or “unnecessary”. We cannot possibly predict the next big shift in language, nor try to alter the nature of such. We can, however, take advantage of this revolution. The advent of the Internet has had an increasingly huge impact on our language. The need for faster, more accurate information has engendered an entirely new process of communication, one which has built itself around the capacities and limits of the Internet. It could be thought of as a burgeoning plant, one which at first seems to be choking the beauty of all the other flowers in the garden -- but before you leap for the weed-killer, why not see how it develops? This “weed” could produce some fruit or ornament as never seen before -- it is not our duty, as the gardeners of language, to destroy anything vaguely unfamiliar, nor to quash the shoots of originality. No, this garden has so much more potential than that. Scholars humph and haw and shake their heads at the Internet phenomenon, calling it lazy and improper, whereas a new generation has already come to terms with it, and is using it in ever more inventive ways. The colloquial term, “to Google”, is already an accepted verb used widely throughout the information rich world. In reality, these “Internet-isms” make up a very small part of our language. The technology which inspired them is only a couple of decades old, and even then, many of them are lifted from existing phrases, or from redefined words which are declining in use, for example, the term “social networking” was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1976, before Facebook or Twitter were even thought of. Even “OMG” and “LOL” were in use far before Generation Z’s grandparents came about - the first recorded instance of “OMG” was in 1917.

In our interconnected, global society, the surge of instantly recognisable intialisms to convey information is a boon for everyone. The future could bring the populace of the world even closer to a universal language, or just a generally accepted code, as it were - for example, many accidents at sea have been avoided since the invention of Standard Marine Communication Phrases, an array of essential groups of words used for communication between vessels on the ocean whose crew may speak differing languages. Another interesting, often overlooked facet of communication is the creation of creole languages from pidgins. A pidgin language comes about through the attempts of two speakers without a common language to interact with each other, and, through time, develops into its own language, called a creole language, which is native to a speech community - that is, a second language which children are born into. Perhaps, in the future, a similar thing could happen with these internet colloquialisms. Already they are assimilating into our day-to-day language; what if there becomes a standardised “language of the Internet” as SMCP is the “language of the sea”? What if our lingual capacity transcends that of the mundane so that we live both in the real world and the virtual, with two distinct languages for each?

Or perhaps more interestingly, what if the two merge? Modern life is already practically inseparably bonded with technology, and even now the once far-fetched science-fiction tales of brain-chips and cyborgs are becoming more and more likely, with the advent of intelligent prosthetics and the startlingly fast development of AI. Scientists are rocketing towards the future, whilst linguists, it seems, are struggling to keep up.

The future of the English language (and indeed, the future in general) remains, as ever, uncertain. But, looking at past and present trends, one thing is obvious: we could be on the cusp of the next big shift in language, and a pusillanimous repression of such would be to admit defeat to unoriginality. Traditions may gain sanctity through repetition, but without growth, language just grows stale. 

The End

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