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Matinee Blog

The evolution of languages: Has the internet helped or hindered?

Today is International Mother Language Day, an annual recognition of linguistic diversity established by UNESCO back in 1999. To mark the occasion, we thought it would be interesting to look at the evolution of language in this global, digital age – and how to embrace it.

Language is a living entity – constantly growing, adapting and borrowing in order to reflect new influences and keep up with new concepts. This is true of all languages – from those with ancient roots to those that are only a few hundred years old.

But the huge acceleration of modern global communications, from the end of the 20th century onwards, has resulted in a faster pace of language development than ever before.

Today the language we use – depending partly on age and also setting – is peppered by abbreviations, acronyms and new words that have evolved from internet speak and text messaging.

These new terms have developed in the context of the various conventions and restrictions of digital communications, such as the character limit set by platforms like Twitter, and the fact that many tools are adopted early on by younger people who want to create their own ways of communicating.

The incorporation of abbreviations and acronyms into language is nothing new; abbreviations such as Mr, oz and eg, and acronyms like ASAP, RSVP and TTFN were around long before the internet was invented. But the scale is different now, with hundreds of new terms being coined rather than just a handful.

Many of these – LOL, OMG, TMI, ROFL, modem, blog – quickly pass into common use and become established as part of our language. Oxford Dictionaries Online adds numerous new words each year, many of which have evolved from digital communications. Last year’s batch included the abbreviations ‘apols’ and ‘grats’, along with expressions derived from social media such as ‘selfie’ and ‘unlike’.

Keyword with letters spelling LOL

As businesses have adopted new methods of communication – email, SMS, social media – so their language has started to change, too. This is partly because their employees – as well as the audience they’re trying to reach – have got used to communicating with these tools in less formal settings.

Obviously there is still a need for formality in business communications – a letter from a bank to a customer will always be written using fairly formal language. But there are other contexts in which new language can be embraced; there are degrees of formality. So emails tend to be less formal than letters, and social media posts tend to be less formal than emails. A marketing video aimed at young people and intended to go viral will use more informal language than a business-to-business corporate video.

There is another way in which digital communication influences the language we use today, apart from the effect it has on the evolution of the language. How we consume content on the digital devices themselves also plays an important part. Because much of the information we take in is read on screens – often really small ones – it has to be written more simply and directly so that we can understand it easily (and quickly – because we are often on the move).

So what does all this mean for effective business communications? Here are two simple rules:

  • Pitch language according to the market – younger people may expect newer, more informal language to be used (depending on the product/service).
  • Pitch language according to the communication channel – you can be less formal on social media platforms, for example, than in a marketing brochure.

And of course the same rules should be applied to corporate translation activities. This is a good example of the importance of localisation when preparing material for different countries and cultures, with their own evolving languages.