How technology drives language evolution

Technology plays a pivotal role in shaping how languages evolve over time. As our society becomes increasingly intertwined with technological advancements, our language naturally adapts to keep pace with these changes. This evolution isn’t just about adding new words; it’s about creating terms that accurately describe our modern world and the complex ideas that come with it.


For instance, think about how quickly new terms like ‘botnet,’ ‘net-neutrality,’ and ‘backward compatible’ have entered everyday conversations. These words, once confined to technical circles, are now part of mainstream language. This rapid integration is largely thanks to the internet and social media, which facilitate widespread communication and information sharing.

Tech companies are at the forefront of driving these linguistic shifts. They not only invent new words and phrases to describe their innovations but also use these terms as branding tools. Consider how ‘to google,’ ‘to skype,’ or ‘to photoshop’ have become everyday verbs. Even lesser-known terms like ‘uberize,’ meaning to revolutionize a market, exemplify how technology shapes language through innovation and popularization.


Furthermore, learning languages has become more accessible with technology. For instance, people can now easily find an online language tutor or use language apps to practice and improve their skills. These tools help in understanding languages better by offering explanations and exercises tailored to individual needs. Virtual assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa also contribute by quickly defining words and clarifying meanings, making communication clearer and more precise. As technology evolves, so does our ability to grasp and convey languages effectively.


When words get new meanings

Words undergo transformations in their meanings over time, reflecting shifts in society’s values and perceptions. A prime example of this evolution is the term ‘nerd’. Originally used disparagingly to describe socially awkward or isolated individuals, ‘nerd’ now carries a positive connotation of expertise and passion in specialized fields.


This shift in meaning can be attributed in part to the rise of Silicon Valley icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Their entrepreneurial successes and the pervasive influence of technology in daily life have elevated the status of knowledge and technical skill. In today’s information age, being a ‘nerd’ signifies possessing deep knowledge and proficiency, traits highly valued in fields ranging from computer science to pop culture fandoms.

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Thus, the word ‘nerd’ has transformed from a label of exclusion to a badge of honor, symbolizing intellectual prowess and mastery. This linguistic evolution not only reflects changes in societal attitudes but also underscores the growing importance of expertise in a technology-driven world. As knowledge continues to empower individuals and shape industries, the term ‘nerd’ stands as a testament to the enduring impact of language on our perceptions and aspirations.


Who decides which words are worthy?

Deciding which words make it into dictionaries today involves a more dynamic and inclusive process than in the past. Previously, dictionaries were seen as guardians of “proper” language, but now they aim to reflect how language is actually used by people.


For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision in 2007 to replace nature-related words in its junior edition with modern terms like ‘blog’, ‘broadband’, and ‘MP3 player’ sparked controversy among parents. Some argued for the reinstatement of outdoor words, while others supported the inclusion of contemporary terms, citing the practicality of lighter, more relevant dictionaries for children.


Today, major dictionaries like Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster embrace online platforms that allow for continual updates and expansions. Editors actively monitor the internet for new words and regularly solicit input from the public. This approach enables them to capture emerging words and phrases quickly, reflecting the ever-evolving nature of language in the digital age.


Recent additions such as ‘Trumpadour’ and ‘nomophobia’ highlight the flexibility and creativity in modern dictionary entries. While some may find these additions unconventional or niche, they demonstrate how dictionaries now serve as repositories not just of words, but of cultural trends and innovations.

Where the wild words are

Language evolution often takes unconventional paths, especially when influenced by youth culture and pop trends. In Germany, the Langenscheidt dictionary embraces this dynamism through an annual competition aimed at identifying the “coolest” word of the year among teenagers. This initiative invites public submissions, which are then reviewed by a jury comprising high school students, YouTube personalities, linguists, teachers, and journalists.

The winner of this year’s competition was ‘Fly-sein,’ derived from the English expression ‘being fly,’ which means stylish or cool. Interestingly, despite its selection as the word of the year, many young people in Germany were unfamiliar with it, highlighting the sometimes unpredictable nature of language trends.

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Youth-driven linguistic innovations often emerge from cultural influences like pop music and street slang. For instance, artists such as Haftbefehl, a gangsta rapper, infuse German with vocabulary from Turkish, Arabic, and Kurdish languages, reflecting both personal heritage and the multicultural fabric of their communities. This blending not only enriches German vocabulary but also serves as a form of cultural assertion, challenging conventional linguistic boundaries.

Haftbefehl’s approach exemplifies a broader trend where new words and expressions arise organically to inject freshness and emotion into language. These innovations often resonate deeply within their communities and eventually influence mainstream usage, as seen with terms like “abi” (meaning ‘brother’), which have become widely understood beyond their original context.

Memes and Internet jargon


Memes and internet jargon are exerting a profound influence on language today, shaping it more intensely than ever before. Words and expressions like TMI (too much information), FOMO (fear of missing out), and ICYMI (in case you missed it) exemplify this shift—they started as abbreviations used in online communication and have now been formally recognized in dictionaries like Merriam-Webster. This illustrates how the definition of what constitutes a word is expanding to include terms born out of internet culture, reflecting our increasing time spent online and the dominance of written communication in digital interactions.

Moreover, the evolution of dictionaries is not limited to textual entries alone. The rise of emojis provides another compelling example. Originally a simple set of emoticons typed using keyboard characters, emojis have evolved into a diverse and expressive pictorial language. Managed by the Emoji Consortium, updates to the emoji keyboard regularly introduce new symbols that can convey emotions, objects, or situations universally, transcending language barriers. This evolution mirrors broader societal conversations; recent updates, for instance, have included emojis depicting women in various professional roles, addressing issues of inclusivity and diversity in a symbolic yet impactful manner.

Thus, the influence of memes, internet jargon, and emojis extends beyond mere linguistic novelty—they shape how we communicate both online and offline, adapting language to the digital age while reflecting and influencing cultural shifts and societal values.

As the old saying goes, you cannot not communicate

The future of language appears poised for significant transformation, driven by advancing technologies that could redefine how we communicate. Ken Perlin, a computer science professor at New York University, envisions a shift away from traditional oral expression towards a mode of communication combining gestures, sounds, and potentially augmented reality.

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Perlin predicts that technologies like augmented reality (AR) will become so integrated into daily life that they will be perceived as normal by future generations who grow up with them from infancy. For these children, the boundaries between physical reality and virtual overlays could blur, freeing them from constraints imposed by natural physics. This could revolutionize communication patterns that have remained largely unchanged for millennia.

In this envisaged future, language might evolve beyond spoken and written words to include immersive experiences where gestures, visual cues, and interactive environments play central roles. This shift could lead to new forms of expression and comprehension, leveraging technology to convey ideas and emotions in ways that are more intuitive and immersive than traditional linguistic methods.

Ultimately, the trajectory of language evolution hinges on how seamlessly future technologies integrate with human communication and cognition. If Perlin’s vision holds true, the language of tomorrow may be less about the spoken or written word and more about the immersive, interactive experiences facilitated by advanced technologies like augmented reality.

Internet literacy

Understanding the language of young people and its intersection with technology is crucial for grasping how language is evolving around us. The shifts we observe today are just a glimpse of what’s to come, driven by the rapid integration of technology into daily life.

As society becomes increasingly interconnected with technology, the pace of linguistic evolution will likely accelerate. The language used online, in social media, and through digital communication platforms not only reflects current trends but also shapes how we express ourselves and interact with others.

Moreover, internet literacy plays a pivotal role in deciphering these changes. It involves not only understanding the meanings of new words and phrases but also grasping the cultural contexts and nuances embedded within digital communication. Memes, emojis, abbreviations, and internet slang are all part of this evolving linguistic landscape, influencing both written and spoken language.

Looking ahead, as technology continues to intertwine with every aspect of our lives—from artificial intelligence to virtual reality—the ways we communicate are bound to undergo further transformations. These changes will not only affect how we express ourselves individually but also how we collectively construct and interpret meaning in a digitally connected world.

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