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THE LANGUAGE OF THE DIGITAL AGE1
Miroslava Tsvetkova, PhD
Konstantin Preslavsky University of Shumen, Shumen, Bulgaria, email@example.com
Abstract: The key word in the paper is ‘language’ but the one that changes the direction of study from its
traditional view is ‘digital’. In a broad sense, language is a means of communication among people. But the
communication that is discussed at hand refers to a specific type, that of technology, innovation, and rapid
growth. ‘Digital’ describes electronic technology that generates, stores, and processes data. Nowadays social
media and digital communication platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, Google Chat, Viber,
Whatsapp, or email, remove the use of hand gestures, facial expressions, volume, pitch, and intonation. This is
where emoticons step in, allowing online conversation to become easier, more effective, and more natural . The
feeling can be expressed by a single character-sized graphic. Although they come with new technology, the
language that is used in them has deep evolutionary origin, characterised by its inherently cooperative nature.
Abbreviations, number homophones, and various symbols are used in poetry still in 19 century (Bombaugh in
the “Essay to Miss Catherine Jay”). An interesting case is the origin of the abbreviation OK as a jokey
misspelling of ‘all correct’ in early times as well as the contemporary use of the acronyms OMG and LOL, for
example. Language emerges, changes, and continues to evolve in contexts of use. While this is a natural process,
new technology is advancing the range and means available for interpersonal interaction. This is both fascinating
and fun, especially for the young generation.
The paper investigates texting: its origin, meaning, and characteristic features. It shows how to interpret
the mix of abbreviations, acronyms, shortenings, emoticons, and symbols. It is a language similar to that once
used by those sending telegraphs. It is just a simplified version of language. Even a single letter, digit, or sign
alone or in combinations can replace a phoneme, a syllable, or a whole word.
The paper questions whether the language of the digital age is more like writing or speech. Will typing
replace speech or will our speech adapt to incorporate these textual changes? Finally the paper proves that
although language itself changes slowly, the Internet fosters the process of these changes. The argument is
supported by the British linguist David Crystal (2008) in his book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, “The main effect of the
Internet on language has been to increase the expressive richness of language, providing the language with a new
set of communicative dimensions that haven’t existed in the past.”
Key words: language, communication, texting, digital age
The key word in the paper is ‘language’ but the one that changes the direction of the study from its
traditional view is ‘digital’. In a broad sense, language is a means of communication among people. But the
communication that is discussed at hand refers to a specific type, that of technology, innovations, and rapid
growth. ‘Digital’ describes electronic technology that generates, stores, and processes data. As every other aspect
of communication, it undergoes radical transformations.
The paper aims at investigating texting: its origin, meaning, and characteristic features. The object of
the study is texting2 in various mobile applications.
Although the topic is debatable, the paper supports the idea that texting as the 21 st-century phenomenon
helps language development rather than fosters a decline in literacy.
Nowadays language is not the same as it was when it originated. There are many reasons for the
changes such as history and culture, but the most influential one turns to be technology.
2. LANGUAGE IN HUMAN BEINGS AND IN SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL COMMUNICATION
Before we illustrate how communication in social media and digital applications changes language, let
us look briefly at the way human beings acquire their first and second languages. People develop language skills
in two different ways. Babies acquire a language by listening to the real interactions between their parents or
caregivers. From the age of about two, children produce their first words and short phrases. It is only possible
because people have a genetic disposition to imitate and then rationalise what they hear. Learning a second
language at an older age requires more cognitive effort, largely because the child is not immersed in a language
community of native speakers. At school, foreign languages are usually acquired by learning grammatical
structure, vocabulary and spelling, using drills that describe linguistic knowledge in terms of abstract rules,
tables and examples. Learning a foreign language becomes more difficult as one gets older.
1 The research leading to these results has been funded by Project RD 08-153/9.02.2018 of the Department of
English Studies at Shumen University, Bulgaria, entitled Intersections and Trends in Linguistics, Culture and
2 Texting is the abbreviated language and slang commonly used with mobile phone text messaging, or
other Internet-based communication (Wikipedia).
Nowadays social media and digital communication platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, Skype,
Google Chat, Viber, Whatsapp, etc. “create a shared digital, rather than physical space between the sender and
recipient of the message, making a near-immediate exchange of communication” (Knight 2015, 20). As a result,
there is blurring of the boundaries between what we traditionally understand as being characteristic of spoken
and written discourse through the reduction of the temporal and social distance of between the sender and
receiver. We should note that the language that is used is the same but in a different graphic representation.
The paper puts forward two questions: Is the language of the digital age more like speech or writing?
Will typing replace speech or will our speech adapt to incorporate these textual changes?
3. COMING FROM THE PAST
Communication between people has deep evolutionary roots, characterised by its inherently cooperative
nature. And it emerges, changes and continues to evolve in contexts of use: usage is the driver of language
change. While this is a natural process, new technology is advancing the range and means available for
Although it comes with new technology, the language that is used has deep evolutionary origin,
characterised by its inherently cooperative nature. Letters, number homophones, and various symbols are used in
poetry still in 19 century (Bombaugh in the “Essay to Miss Catherine Jay”). An earlier version, entitled “To Miss
Catherine Jay of Utica”, dates back to 1832, as noted by Allen Walker Read in his 1963 article in American
Speech, “The First Stage in the History of O.K.”
From virt U nev R D V 8;
Her influence B 9
A like induces 10 dern S,
Or 40 tude D vine.
(Bombaugh 1867, 69)
The translation would look like this:
From virtue never deviate;
Her influence benign
Alike induces tenderness,
Or fortitude divine.
Even a single letter, digit, or sign alone or in combinations can replace a phoneme, a syllable, or a
whole word. In the couplet above 10 dern S exemplifies a combination of seven symbols which replaces a word
consisting of ten letters.
When the first clocks (sundials) were invented in Ancient Egypt, the meridian was chosen to be noon.
Then, in the 17th century, the terms AM and PM were introduced.
a.m. meaning ante meridiem (‘before midday’) and p.m. standing for post meridiem (‘after midday’).
From the time of the telegraph messages were limited to a small number of characters. Later on, t exting
continued its function as a time-consuming practice. Texters stay away from traditional grammar and spelling
rules in order to make their texts briefer.
In 1836, the American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the man who invented the telegraph, developed the
Morse code. Each symbol was represented by a unique sequence of dots and dashes. In this way, for example, 73
was used to mean “best regards”, while 88 – “hugs and kisses”.
In everyday speech most of us use the abbreviation OK. But once imposed in the language, we do not
even think about its origin or its original meaning. All we know is that it is connected with something good or
something we approve.
Although it is an abbreviation, it exists in the dictionary so it is accepted as one of the words of the
English language. The Oxford student’s dictionary (1989), for example, says:
OK 1. adj., adv. in good order
2. vt. to give one’s approval to
Its use in the past would make some people think the meaning of OK is approaching to the Scots
expression och aye or the Greek ola kala (It is good). Others would prefer its French origin aux Cayes (after the
name of a port in Haiti having a reputation for good rum) or after a railway freight agent called Obediah Kelly
who is said to have written them on his documents.
An interesting assumption of the origin of OK is a jokey misspelling of ‘all correct’ (orl korrekt) in
TTYL is just another example of the use of acronyms in early ages. It was used in the United Kingdom
to say ‘good bye’ (ta ta, you all).
The meaning of OK is not the only one used in texting that is added to the dictionary. “N ew words are
added to the dictionary to represent the changing nature of language — 150 last year alone, including three
explicitly linked to texting culture: srsly (‘seriously’), emoji (the emoticons and smileys used often in text
messages), and TL:DR (short for ‘Too long, didn’t read.’)”. (Drexler 2014) This is an obvious indicator that
texting is part of the language.
4. TEXT-MESSAGING PHENOMENON AND ITS EFFECT ON LANGUAGE
As Green explains, “texting would appear to be a mixture of abbreviations and acronyms, all very much
at the user’s discretion” (2007, 127).
The discussion starts with an analysis of text messages sent between friends (Niki and Alis), 12-year-old
girls, through one of the digital communication platforms, Viber.
As it was pointed out in the previous section, the graphic distinctiveness of texting is not a totally new
phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to new young generations only. Even people who stick to traditional
orthography, text. Mobile apps remove the use of hand gestures, facial expressions, volume, pitch, and
intonation. This is where emoticons step in, allowing online conversation to become easier, more effective, and
more natural. The feeling or mood can be expressed by a single character-sized graphic or picture.
In the study at hand, an emoji is used to express happiness at the start of the conversation. Researchers
in the field of speech acts, Peneva (2017) among them, state that learners of English tend to emphasise on the
emotional aspect of the speech act by expressing attitude to the speech situation. Emoticons manage to
compensate the lack of non-verbal communication cues. Emoticons also serve communicative functions (see
Skovholt et al. 2014).
There is a difference between emoticons and emojis. Emoticons actually preceded emojis. Emoticons
originate from “emotion” plus “icon”. They are facial expression characters which convey emotion or attitude
through keyboard characters:
Western 3 and Eastern4 style emoticons are most commonly used.
3 Western style emoticons are written from left to right as though the head is rotated counter-clockwise 90
degrees (the eyes on the left, followed by the nose, and then the mouth). The eyes are marked by a colon unless
winking (semicolon). An equals sign, number 8, or capital B are used to indicate respectively normal eyes,
widened eyes, or with glasses. The symbols for the mouth vary, ) or (, etc. according to a smiley, sad, etc. face.
4 Eastern emoticons are not rotated sideways, and may include non-Latin characters to allow for additional
Although they are composed only of punctuation marks, digits, and letters, they all have specific
semantic function and are adapted to express attitude.
Apart from emoticon images, there exist non-emoticon emojis. Beside facial expressions or feelings,
emojis can express common objects, places, types of weather, and animals as well. Since they were first used in
cell phone communication in Japan, the word originates from the Japanese word e (‘picture’)
and moji (‘character’). Emojis are pictographs, small enough to insert in texts, which vary in different platforms.
Emojis from two platforms, Viber and Facebook Messenger, are compared below (see Figure 1 and
Figure 1. Emojis on Viber. Figure 2. Emojis on Facebook Messenger.
As opposed to the colourful emojis, communication platforms make use of signs as physical
representations. They represent their function through similarity to what they signify.
Going on with a question, the Viber user is texting two of the words as single letters (r u). Cases when
words can often be replaced by a single letter or digit that would produce a similar speech sound include:
Some of them can have more than one meanings:
C (see, sea)
N (-en, and)
1 (one, won)
2 (two, to, too)
4 (for, four, fore)
These can cause misunderstanding. The question that arises here is whether the language of the digital
age is more like speech than writing. It is obvious that these are all cases when homophones appear in speech.
On the other hand, the letters and digits above can be considered as homographs of different words and as such,
they are part of writing. Human beings are genetically specified for speech. Writing came along much later. And
texting is the link between them. Although it has a graphic representation, texting is simplified because it tries to
keep up with the pace of speech. The trouble comes with the decoding of the message; it is the context that helps
the reader guess the meaning.
In order to make words shorter, letters can also be combined with digits (for example, 10x, 2day, gr8,
b4), using the numbers for their homophonic quality. Combinations vary to the users. Thanks can be represented
both as 10x and thanX.
Shall we make the students stop using the language of technology? The paper supports the idea that the
language of the digital age is creative and cognitively beneficial and it fosters student’s thinking in the second
language. It is something like the Interlanguage, a separate system of communication between speech and
writing. Language emerges, changes, and continues to evolve in various contexts of use. While this is a natural
process, new technology is advancing the range of interpersonal interaction. This is a fascinating way of having
direct communication with each other. The way of expressing themselves gives the texters the opportunity to
establish a two-way free-flowing sharing of thoughts and feelings.
A well-known linguist, David Crystal (2008) argued that the advent of texting reveals how dynamic
“The main effect of the Internet on language has been to increase the expressive richness of language,
providing the language with a new set of communicative dimensions that haven’t existed in the past.” (Crystal
Gorney (2012), on the other hand, found the advantage of texting in translation. “The language of
texting enabled the students to apply the translating skills that are used in foreign language classes to improve
their proficiency with the English language. There is a process of code-switching that is involved when
translating between two languages, and this same process is beginning to show up in translating between texting
language and English.” (Gorney 2012, 40)
Texters usually shorten words by omitting letters, usually vowels or ‘silent’ consonants (pls for ‘please’,
comin for ‘coming’ in the message that is discussed). Other examples are:
Shortenings are just another case:
The language of the digital age is going into everyday communication very fast. Even punctuation
symbols such as @ (at) are often used not only in typing, but also in handwritten messages.
Later on, Niki is already at the cinema. The conversation goes on.
The apostrophe is a common mark in English. There were quite many examples of omission of one or
more letters in the words above but not a single one marked ambiguity. When the apostrophe is omitted in cases
of contractions, however, the result can be an erroneous use of the homophonic words. Sometimes words can be
misread. If we type Im, we will certainly understand the meaning since there is not such a word in English. But
what will happen if we type lets or its? Although the texter means let us, she uses lets, which is the third-person
singular present form of the verb let. The situation is analogical with its. It is not the possessive
adjective/pronoun (its) that is actually required but the contraction of it is (it’s). It is only their place in the
utterance, at the beginning, that helps the receiver choose the correct meaning.
It is for sure that the social media is having an impact on language. A still more obvious mistake appears
with we’re, which is usually used without the apostrophe in texting. Then it is misread as the past form of the
verb ‘be’ (were).
Although it is not the point in this message, the hour is often typed without a punctuation mark (610).
Punctuation is not obligatory in texting and it varies to the users.
The digital age “has even invented” a way to express noises as associated with actions - zzz (expressing
sleeping) or the very act of doing - xxx (kisses) through alphabetical symbols.
Text abbreviations are typical for the language of technology as well. Most common are:
IC - I see
CU l8er - See you later
RUOK - Are you OK?
The contemporary Internet acronyms such as OMG (Oh My God), LOL (Laughing out loud), RN (Right
now), BRB (Be right back), and TTYL (Talk to you later), as well as other kinds of internet slang are just another
way of expressing yourself.
John McWharther (2013) expressed his different view about the use of LOL. He states that LOL is not
“a signifier of amusement” and does not express laughing any more but it is a marker of empathy. In daily
speech it is a means to change the subject quickly, so it is considered a pragmatic particle. Thus we can conclude
that the meaning of some abbreviations or acronyms can also change in time.
Finally, the sentence case should be mentioned. Texters use either all uppercase or all lowercase for
abbreviations as both cases have identical meanings.
The paper sums up the social effect of texting. and proves that although language itself changes slowly,
the social media and digital communication fosters the process of these changes. Technology will continue to
evolve and that it will alter the way we interact with each other. Why is our speech adapting and evolving to
incorporate these textual shapes and forms? The answer is short and accurate and it is “Necessity”. Texting gives
us the opportunity to write the way we talk.
Since language is constantly changing and due to individual differences, the present material cannot be
considered exhaustive. The answers to the questions are still open and anyone interested in the language changes
will find his/her own answers, relevant to his/her own context.
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