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Language evolves online (and that’s okay)

/ 05:15 AM August 30, 2019

There’s this internet anecdote about a mom who replied “LOL” to a Facebook post announcing someone’s passing. She meant “lots of love,” the way they wrote “lots of love” in the days of airmail and telegraph. But of course, for anyone who knows a bit about online slang, “LOL” now means “laughing out loud.” You wouldn’t really want to say “LOL” to someone who’s just announced that their relative is dead.

Language is continuously changing, and online communication is speeding up the process. Internet-speak quickly legitimizes slang (“twerk,” “selfie”), reinvents existing words (“fam,” “cancelled”), and even bends grammar rules (“I’m lowkey googling examples”).

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Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of objections to how online lingo is reshaping language as a whole. Some people are concerned that younger generations are no longer able to communicate well and that the beauty of language is lost.

I subscribe to an alternate view: that internet-driven language is valuable in many contexts and fascinating in its own way. Accepting the fluidity of language is essential for people to truly understand each other and the world.

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For one, new vocabulary that’s popularized online helps spotlight concepts that have not been recognized enough. The term “bromance,” for instance, normalizes the affectionate but nonromantic friendships between men. We’re saying it’s not a weird thing anymore for two guys to be close, caring friends—it’s simply a bromance.

Similarly, occurrences such as “catfishing” and “overtourism” can now be discussed head-on because these new words give them concrete, graspable labels. Whereas before, we would just vaguely remark about the overcrowding of tourist sites, these days, we can dissect overtourism in full articles, feature the word in headlines and hashtag it everywhere on social media.

Online vocabulary also sheds light on new phenomena that must be tackled in the mainstream. The word “incel” comes to mind. It stands for “involuntary celibates,” which in modern usage refers to men who are extremely unhappy about not having sexual relationships. They first made headlines in 2014, when an incel went on a stabbing and shooting rampage, and again in 2018, when another incel ran his van into a crowd and killed 10 people.

Apart from the inventive vocabulary, modern language is also enriched by those ubiquitous little things called emojis. While pictograms aren’t new, they are now so ingrained in text-based language that the Oxford Dictionaries even chose an actual emoji icon as Word of the Year 2015.

Emojis aren’t just visual ornaments. They are a practical tool in setting the “tone” of the text, creating a more nuanced interaction and leaving less room for misinterpretation. A text message that says “Fine” actually means fine when accompanied by a smiling emoji. But when it’s just a plain-text “Fine”—or when the accompanying emoji looks upset—you can practically hear that you’re in trouble.

The internet-driven evolution of language isn’t just happening in English, but in Philippine languages as well.

In Filipino, when we say “Anyare?” we’re not merely asking “Anong nangyari?” but also expressing disappointment or frustration (as in “Anyare sa antiflood project?”). In Cebuano, the word katkat is no longer confined to its literal meaning of “to climb”; it is now used as a discrediting tag for social climbers (as in “katkat sa Starbucks”).

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And who can miss the evolution of the word “Tita”? Formally, it is an honorific for an aunt, but we Pinoys now understand that a “tita” is more than that. Being “tita” is a lifestyle, an attitude, a fabulous intensity of spirit. Or maybe it’s when you finally find yourself dressing and talking like your aunt. As Pinoys, we know it when we see it.

The fact that a “tita” is tricky to define while being so recognizable is one proof (among the others I’ve cited here) that we cannot always restrict language to its prescriptivist rules. Of course, textbook grammar and fastidious word choice will always be vital, particularly in formal communication. But we don’t have to be afraid of language updates, especially for our personal and social use.

It’s okay to process global issues using colloquialisms, if that’s what helps us understand. It’s okay to use reinvented words and emojis when texting your kids. It’s okay to forgo the word “fastidious” when you can just say “precise”—or “on point,” if you prefer. What’s important is that the language is appropriate in the context, accurately conveying the message, and comprehensible to the audience. With that, you can—as they say—preach it.

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TAGS: Dictionary, internet, Language, online language
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