When language and technology intertwine, evolution happens
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Sounds. Words. Conversations. Speeches. Letters. Articles. Books. Phone calls. Radio. Television. Email. Texting. GIFs. Social media. Streaming video.
For centuries, the ways in which we communicate with one another have constantly been evolving alongside advancements in technology. Innovation has also influenced the very language we speak.
But few inventions have impacted the way humans interact the way smartphones have. In fact, the English language itself is changing right in front of our eyes. From LOL and BRB to emojis and GIFs, tech shorthand is being woven into the fabric of modern society.
"The availability of a computer in our pocket within easy reach has changed the way we communicate," said Richard Rabbat, CEO of Gfycat, a user-generated GIF creator platform (think YouTube for GIFs).
Rabbat has seen it firsthand as Gfycat.com has become a top-100 website in the U.S. in just three years with virtually no marketing budget. How? People love creating GIFs and sharing them.
GIFs have been around for a long time — we celebrated their 30th anniversary this June — but in recent years they have really taken off as a form of communication. Rabbat blames it on our phones' tiny keyboards.
"The keyboard is such a bad input device when it comes to the phone," he said. "We took a typewriter, we put it on a phone, and then we're expecting everybody to type as an input."
Thus, images have become easier to use, and they're more appealing to us. Studies have shown that we are all attracted to visual elements far more than words. According to 3M, the human brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text.
Marketers and social media companies know this. That’s why Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat have all taken off in recent years, and it's why Facebook has focused so much on video lately.
Let’s try it. Which is better:
Clearly, Forrest Gump wins.
"With GIFs, you actually bring back expression," Rabbat said. "There are tons of 'hello' GIFs, for example, but each of them has a certain aura or mystique to it."
But as the world moves to images and away from words, are we advancing or stepping backward? If you look at a page of emojis, for example, it looks an awful lot like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some linguists have even wondered whether emoji will become its own language someday.
As these changes take hold on our society, is this helping or harming the English language?
"Language is living as long as people are using it, so it's a false binary choice," said Debra Josephson Abrams. "Rules are forever being changed by use, and it's often that much after users unconsciously or perhaps consciously create the changes that ‘official authorities’ update their guides."
Abrams would certainly know — she has been teaching the English language to both native and non-native English users for 31 years. In her eyes, technology is clearly helping English in one aspect: spreading across the globe.
"Estimates are that 1.5 billion — billion with a B — people use English, and no doubt many of those numbers can be attributed not only to social media use but also to online education and access to other online resources such as newspapers, magazines, YouTube, and movie and television streaming," said Abrams, who recently left a State Department English language fellowship in Moscow to become an assistant English language professor in South Korea.
According to Abrams, the biggest downside to modern technology's influence on language is a breakdown of cultural norms regarding politeness and in-person interaction.
"The proliferation of smartphone use has also made people less attentive to the world at large," she said. "People walking along the street paying attention to their phones instead of where they are going and walking in to others."
Rabbat has noticed as well. He refers to it as "Starbucks line" syndrome — pulling your phone out while waiting for your Grande Mocha Frappuccino to be made.
So where does all this leave us? And where are we headed in the next decade? Will educators soon be teaching a hybrid form of English and emojis? Will people forgo letters and words in favor of using GIFs to express their thoughts and emotions?
Will we even have smartphones in 10 years?
Rabbat envisions a future in which we all have digital video devices that are constantly on — sort of like police body cameras — to record everything that happens in our lives. We can then choose which parts we want to share with others.
"In most cases, when you pull your phone out, you've already lost the moment you wanted to capture, but imagine a future where you can actually roll back time because everything has already been recorded for you to consume and share," he said. "That's, I think, the power that we will get to in a few years."
Abrams isn't concerned about these rapid technological changes. Older generations constantly fret about the "new" things brought on by younger generations, and language is no different.
"Historically, younger people are responsible for linguistic changes, so my generation will die and younger people will continue unconsciously (and occasionally consciously) shaping the language until it has its own (new) norms and standards (usually as a revolt against existing ones) until another generation comes along to usurp them and on and on," she said.
Sociologists and historians often view changes in cycles. Why should the English language be any different?
"What is old is indeed new again," Abrams said, "and as long as language is used, it's alive and changing — or not changing, but being revitalized."
At this point, the future of the English language might best be summed up by ...
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