Category Archives: Technology

The influence of technology on the English Language

A New Language Emerges

I doubt there has ever been a more fascinating time to study the evolution of language. Change, a natural part of language, has been sped up in such a way that we can now see that evolution happening right in front of our eyes, as if an ape had simply hopped down from a tree right in front of us and immediately stood upright.

Technology and lighting speed mass communication tools are the agents of this change, and they are affecting not only individual languages but also the nature and structure of language itself. And now, a new language itself has been born out of the increasing use of symbols to express ideas – the language of emoji.

The global language monitor recognised this last year when it named the heart emoji as its word of the year, Now, Professor Vyv Evans of Bangor University has declared emoji the fastest evolving language of all time, comparing their usage to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and given their increasing usage and ability to render more than just simple ideas, he clearly has a point.



“As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” he said. “Emoji is the fastest growing form of language in history based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution.”

To illustrate this, Talk Talk Mobile put out a quiz to see how well you know your emoji. More by deduction than anything else I came out with a respectable 50%, though I will still admit that I don’t know my emoji arse from my elbow (a phrase I so far seem unable to render in picture form). My wife and 10-year-old daughter blazed to much closer to 100%, to prove the point

But with emoji emerging as a universal language that, unlike Esperanto, people will actually use in the future, what does this mean? Will emoji have evolved to such an extent that in a few years’ time, it will actually become a lingua franca of digital communication?

Clearly the jury is still on that, but a form of communication based on iconography and human faces has the power to be understood by everybody. And as scholars look for clues about the universal language capability at the root of all of our speech, perhaps the growth of this form of communication can give us some genuine insights into the brain’s hard-wired ability to learn a language

Mobilegeddon not Apocalyptic

If you really want to stress somebody out about an impending technological disaster then give it a really scary name. Just think Millennium Bug.

Of course the turn of the millennium proved to be less parasitical than had been predicted, and the downside of crying technology wolf is that when you incorrectly predict the apocalypse, so dire warnings that are important might end up being ignored. And so that brings us to Mobilegeddon.

Last week you could barely avoid articles about the subject and could have been forgiven for thinking that the mobile network was about to melt, such is the impact of coining a -geddon word. But no. Instead, Google was making a change in its search algorithm, meaning that websites not in tip-top condition when viewed on mobile phones would be penalised in mobile search results, potentially hitting traffic to them.

When I write that sentence, I can see the need for a catchy term of some sort to promote interest, as clearly there is nothing sexy about the subject matter when you come to describe it. But by coining something so over the top, and the website Search Engine Land has been credited for it, it overplayed something which might not otherwise have made the national press but equally might not have deserved to as it’s not really that interesting.

The dearth of coverage outside the techie press since Mobilegeddon Day on April 21 confirms this was never really a mainstream story and not really deserving of the growing usage of -geddon as a suffix. It is not a word that will be with us for long.

And because I know you’re wondering, Wordability passed its mobile-readiness test with flying colours. So there’s no excuse for not reading.


Wordability passes the test

China Goes Duang Crazy

This week, the internet has been in meltdown about the internet being in meltdown. And it’s been the creation of a new word which has done it.



Chinese social media almost exploded with the appearance of the word ‘Duang’, according to reports. Heard initially in a shampoo commercial by film star Jackie Chan in 2004, it re-emerged recently in a remix of the ad. Shortly afterwards the word went viral to such an extent that there were reports shortly afterwards about the word which broke the internet in China.

The facts about all of this seem curiously hard to pin down. What does duang mean? Nobody knows. One of its virtues seems to be that it has no meaning. The Chinese internet has supposedly melted because people have been putting into random statements and contexts indiscriminately, with everybody making sure they have been part of the neologistic craze, without, it seems, knowing why.

And why it has taken off is the other question I can’t really find an answer to. Some reports suggest it is timed to coincide with a new session of a legislative board which advises China’s government and of which Chan is a member. The word therefore either satirises him or pays homage to him. Who knows!

What is clear is that it remains a Chinese phenomenon. While it is now surfacing with reasonable frequency on Twitter, most of those links seem to be to articles about its usage, rather than using the term in the way in which it initially appeared, or at least that is true of the citations in English. In Chinese social media of course it is completely different, and that is where the major growth has been. So I don’t think this is an internationally born word which will make a crossover into English.

But what it does demonstrate is the way that new words can explode across our new forms of communication with almost bacterial speed, and that sometimes, they don’t even need to have a tangible meaning in order to exist. Sometimes, usage of word is enough to show you belong to something, and that is why people have been using it in their droves, to ensure they are part of the trend. And I’m Duang sure I’m right about that about that.


Phubbing Becomes A Phenomenon

Lets be honest. We’ve all done it. I’m not proud of it but I’ve definitely done it. And I’ve had it done to me as well. What am I talking about? Phubbing.

Phubbing, an amalgam of phone and snubbing, is defined as ‘The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention’. The word is the brainchild of Melbournian Alex Haigh, who has set up the hilarious Stop Phubbing website as a way of drawing attention to the practice and allowing people to fight back and stop it. So successful has this been that the term is now going viral.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

It’s a brilliant word, undoubtedly one of my favourites of the year. Why, I hear you ask? Well firstly, it passes the test of being a semantic gap needing filling. This is a modern phenomenon, it is an emerging aspect of modern life, and when you talk to people about it, they all agree they’re aware of it. Well they would agree if they weren’t so busy sending Tweets.

Secondly, it’s a great neologism in its own right and blends the right two words to get the new one. Phubbing retains enough of the sense of its ancestry to aid understanding and stand alone, and also sounds just judgmental enough to make its point. It is also infinitely better than other options. I don’t think phignoring or phold-shouldering would really have cut it.

And its usage is already taking off and moving away from the original source. The day after reporting the advent of the word, The Independent used it in perfect context in a story about how crossing the road is dangerous when you are glued to your phone.

So phubbing as both a concept and a word is here to stay. I think we can all agree that it’s rude and people shouldn’t do it. Unless they’re reading Wordability of course, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

Keep Your Eyes Out For Glassholes

There seems little doubt that when Google started promoting Glass, their wearable computer, they had one eye on the effect they would have on the English language. After all, the term Glass Explorers has already been coined for the early trailblazers, and doubtless the technology giants would be hoping for further linguistic developments in the months to come.

But the problem with introducing something new is that the pesky public does have a habit of coining epithets of its own. And so it is with Google Glass, and the early perception that some of the initial users are behaving in ways that are more than slightly irritating. Being Glassholes, in fact.

It’s early days for the word, but its usage is already being noted and is spreading, and seems very likely to stick. Why is it so successful? Basically, it’s because it’s funny. I mentioned it to somebody the other day and he burst out laughing. It takes that very English type of wordplay of rhyming one word with another, a trick which is always successful, and creates a perfect play on words. It encapsulates a huge amount of meaning in a very short space.

And wouldn’t it be great if the idea of glass rhyming with its buttock-related cousin could be extended to other well-known words and phrases. You’d never think the same way about a ‘glass half full’ person. People who ‘live in glass houses’ would have a very different kind of lifestyle. Even an innocent ‘glass of milk’ would be consumed in an altogether different manner. Anyway, enough. Time to stop glassing around and publish this.

Look Through The Eyes of Glass Explorers

I once did a temping job in an office which concentrated on building and maintenance projects. I always particularly enjoyed dealings with the Electrical Foreman or the Mechanical Foreman. This was nothing to do with their personalities or the nature of the work I had to do. It was simply that I liked their job titles, and imagined them as either built of metal or plugged in as they went about their days.

Google’s new term Glass Explorers has a similar sense. Surely these are people who are tearing through jungles or across ruined buildings while taking care not to shatter. If not that, then they must be people searching for the greatest glass ever made.

Of course, neither is true. Glass Explorers are the 8,000 intrepid souls selected by Google to test their new wearable computer, which is called Glass. If Glass become a success, then the term Glass Explorers will become established as a permanent new technology word, the pioneers at the start of a new type of computing.

From a language point of view, it’s a shame that some other initiatives announced by Google have turned out to be April Fool’s japes, rather than real innovations. It’s a shame that we will not really be able to hunt for buried treasure on Google Maps by using ‘Treasure Mode’, or that ‘Google Nose’ will not become a standard way of searching for smells.

Glass Explorers however are no joke, and as technology takes another step forward, so another array of new words is set to appear.

How Twitter Has Changed Language

If there was one thing I kept on saying in 2012 it was the technology and the internet have changed forever the way that language evolves. But while I had my own instincts and observations to back that up, I was also looking around for something else to validate those claims.

So it was exciting to come across the work of Jacob Eisenstein towards the end of last year. He and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta have analysed a huge body of Twitter data from large cities in America and have shown how this contributes to the development of language.

The researchers found that many new words are born on Twitter, which isn’t a surprise. But what was more interesting was the way that they then grew and moved. New words often appear in cities with large African American populations before hopping to other large, urban areas. For example “bruh”, an alternative spelling of “bro” or “brother”, first arose in a few south-east cities before moving to California.

I spoke to Professor Eisenstein about the work that he and his team are undertaking, and tried to find out what it said about current language evolution and what it promised for the future.

He said: “Some of what we saw is orthographic, or a transcription of phonological differences. There are some new abbreviations, most of them not really fit for print. They tend to be quite specific geographically.”

One particular interesting aspect of Twitter language is that it is conversational English, but expressed in written form, possibly leading to a new type of communication.

Professor Eisenstein speculated: “People want to express meaning on multiple levels, maybe how you feel about it the person you are talking to. In spoken conversation you can do that without altering your vocabulary, but on Twitter you have to alter it.

“Written language was for more formal purposes but now people are using it for social interaction which might have been spoken, so written language has to be more mutli-level than it was in the past.”

He said that since first working on the subject, patterns of language movement have already started to change. For example, AF (meaning As Fuck), was characteristic of southern California, but subsequent analysis has found that it has now moved to Atlanta and is  more popular, proof of how things are changing.

In fact, the pace of change is one of the surprising things. He said: “You wouldn’t expect other types of language change to happen in two years – a generation would be a fast change, but this is very fast, happening in only a couple of years.

“I’m not sure that it’s just a Twitter thing. There is clearly a need to do things in written language that you can’t do in existing convention.”

The next step for the Professor and his team and is to analyse Twitter messages in more fine grained detail, as well as taking the work out side the US. But what is clear is that Twitter provides a unique corpus of language as it is being used, and changing today, and the work carried out on this will give us valuable insights into how English will evolve in 2013 and beyond.