Complex Made Simple

5 times the internet influenced the English language – Part 1

In this article series, we will be exploring how the internet has actively changed the way we use the English language.

Since the dawn of time, language has been an evolving entity, one that changes over the centuries, decades, or even mere years Today, the internet is accelerating this change exponentially Emoticons - and later emoji - are among the earliest changes the English language exhibited online

Since the dawn of time, language has been an evolving entity, one that changes over the centuries, decades, or even mere years, due to things like immigration, colonization, and changing personal experiences. For example, in a small country like Lebanon that spans a mere 10,452 km², you can find different dialects and vocabularies stemming from a language base (Lebanese Arabic) that’s already a variety of North Levantine Arabic, itself an offshoot of the universal Modern Standard Arabic language. 

Long story short, years of human civilization, wars, immigration, trade, and more have helped shaped the modern languages we use today.

Today, in terms of the English language, which has become the lingua franca of the international world, these changes are continuing to evolve, but at a much faster pace than anyone could have ever anticipated. The catalyst? 

The internet. 

From emoticons during the early days of MSN messenger, to hashtags and new slang, the English language is changing at a rapid rate. 

In this article series, we will be exploring 5 times the internet actively changed the way we use the English language. More parts will follow over the next few days. 

Part 1: Emoticons and emojis

There is a long and debated history about the first someone in history used punctuation to signify an emotion. For the purpose of this article, we will stick with the early modern uses of it. 

Scott Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is often credited with being the first man to create emoticons and suggest their use online as a form of new language. 

This is the message by Scott E Fahlman on his university computer science online board (think university forum), where he first suggested the use of emoticons.

This eventually spread to other networks and by the 90s, users began using emoticons to signify emotions. This arose somewhat organically after Fahlman’s introduction to the concept was eventually lost to time. Users were looking for ways to imbue their bland text discussions with some life, at a time when photo and video sharing was nearly non-existent. As such, emoticons blew up in popularity. 

Eventually, in the late 90s, the first emoji, an evolution of emoticons, were created in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, WIRED explains. Kurita was part of the development team for “i-mode,” an early mobile internet platform from Japan’s main mobile carrier, DOCOMO. 

“Kurita wanted to design an attractive interface to convey information in a simple, succinct way: for example, an icon to show the weather forecast rather than spelling out ‘cloudy,'” WIRED writes. “So Kurita sketched a set of 12- by 12-pixel images that could be selected from a keyboard-like grid within the i-mode interface, then sent on mobiles and pages as their own individual characters.”

“Emoji remained largely confined to Japan for over a decade. While they were immediately copied by other Japanese telecoms companies, the symbols were not standardized, meaning they could not be used across different networks,” CNN writes.

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This eventually spilled over to the West, with companies like Google and Apple catching on and helping standardize them as part of the online experience.

“It was not until 2010 that emoji were incorporated into Unicode, the standard that governs the software coding of text. That year, 722 emoji were released on both iPhone and Android,” the news site continued. “‘In Japan, they were a big hit right away, but the use of emoji overseas really took off starting from 2012, and I was surprised by that gap of time,’ said Kurita.”

Today, emoji have myriad uses in online conversation. They can convey complex emotions like anger, disappointment, sarcasm, and a lot more. There are a lot of understated subtleties that go into their use than apparent. 

For example, an angry parent or spouse might eschew the usual use of emoji during a conversation with their loved ones, which to the digital native receiving the messages could signify that the sender is not happy with them, or is rather in a bad mood. This naturally depends on the person, as some people are not inclined to use emoji, though they are few and far between. 

Online discourse is filled with small subtleties like this, where emoji often play a major role in conveying context, meaning, and emotions. For the avid online user, it can even come off as odd not being able to use emoji in a conversation to convey small nuances, especially when in a formal setting – that’s how much we’ve become conditioned to use them over time. 

Stay tuned for the next part of this article series where we will explore other ways the internet has changed the way we use the English language! 

Read: Is it ok for informal emoji to make their way into business and the workplace?