I was recently asked to do a talk at a Rotary meeting on the topic of literacy. I felt honoured, and decided to talk about the effect of the internet on literacy, especially the changes occurring with youth in their communication online, and even offline. Here is my presentation:
The Egyptians used various icons of animals, plants, people and other symbols to tell a story about their lifestyle thousands of years ago. It was a simple way for them to communicate however the ‘pictograms’ that are popularly associated with this ancient language are not literal but partly representative of letters in their alphabet.
Hey, but our English language doesn’t use iconic symbols, isn’t that right?
Many of you, especially if you utilise social media, will be familiar with emoticons. They are a product of the internet age; as young people especially can replace whole words, mostly communicating a feeling or emotion in just a few key strokes on their mobile phone or computer keyboard. The key strokes combination is translated into an icon, such as a heart or a smiley face, which tells the person at the other end of the communication that they love or like something, or are happy about something. Replace the colon in the smiley face combination with a semi-colon, and the result is a winking smiley face that suggests the person is joking about something or is telling the recipient not to take what is said too seriously.
So what has brought on this iconography on social media?
Before the internet, we all learnt how to read and write, and our communication with each other was mainly verbal face to face or we wrote a letter. Some of us may have learnt to type, but even then, we reserved typed letters for formalities such as job applications and business letters. Most of us had the ability to write quickly and efficiently, and were unrushed as replies took weeks to get back to us. Perhaps we’d end a letter with a smiley face or a sketch, but that would be it. The phone was the most immediate communication available for contact at a distance, and again our verbal abilities had no need for icons and symbols.
The internet has only really being with us since the 1990s, but its impact has been enormous. Suddenly, people could communicate in writing with each other instantly, and many without keyboard skills had to search and tap with one or two fingers. Facebook only emerged 10 years ago, along with Twitter and other social media. Social media became available not only on computers but on smart phones and other devices such as iPods, iPads etc.
Young people wanted to keep in touch with their friends but their lack of keyboard skills made it a slow process. The answer was to create a kind of shorthand that used abbreviations and symbols to get the message across faster. A colon and a close bracket looked like a smiling face on its side, a less than sign and the numeral 3 combined to make a heart on its side. And thus the first crude emoticons took form. Social media saw the potential, and made it possible to transform the crude forms into proper smileys, hearts and a host of other pictograms.
Actually, the crude emoticon smiley face has been around since the 1980s, but its use did not come into its own until the internet age.
Now, the other side of this need to shorten social media texts is to abbreviate, and young people especially have created so many abbreviations that a not so social media literate person is left confused by what is almost another language.
Try this one for size: ‘OMG! M8 IDK cos YOLO. BTW GTG but BRB’.
Who knows what I said? It translates to ‘Oh My God! mate, I don’t know because you only live once. By the way, I’ve got to go but I’ll be right back’.
Some of the other popular abbreviations include:
ATM: Not a banking device for withdrawing money but ‘At the moment’.
IRL: In real life
LMS: like my status
ILY: I love you. This is more a casual term for affection rather than something more serious.
LOL: Laugh out loud
ROFL: Roll over floor laughing
The act of abbreviation will even extend to verbal conversation. You will often hear teenagers now saying LOL, YOLO and shortened or re-invented words.
Young people have also invented their own slang terms that they will use on and off their online chat sessions. Here are a few that are gaining acceptance into the language:
Derp: Something that is silly or dumb, clumsy
Nek Minnut: Next minute
Troll: Someone who spans, tricks or deliberately insults and criticises others.
Fan girl/boy: A girl or boy who is an excited fan about something or someone.
Facepalm: The act of expressing a sense that something/someone is foolish, hence slapping your forehead, but instead of doing it, you write or say the word.
Selfie: A photo of yourself taken by yourself (usually on a mobile phone or iPod)
Teens will also leave out words and punctuation in order to further shorten what they are texting or saying. For example, ‘Nek minnut trips over’ instead of ‘In the next minute he trips over’.
A number of existing words have been given new meaning or adapted for the internet and computer usage.
‘Text’ is now a verb used to describe the act of keying in text for a mobile phone message.
‘Hardware’ has been adapted from its common meaning of hammers, nails etc to refer to the physical parts of a computer.
Nobody’s in trouble when you ‘save’ on a computer. You are simply retaining the data and information on a digital ‘file’ to the computer.
You might still get caught in the ‘web’ but there is no spider to bother you. The web describes the visible portion of the internet that embraces web sites throughout the world.
You won’t catch fish or butterflies with this ‘net’, which is short for the internet or the network of computer servers that service the web.
There is no need to drive anywhere to go to these ‘addresses’ as they are the coding for finding web sites on the internet.
Friend has become a verb as ‘to friend someone’ or include them on your social media account, giving them access to your ‘posts’ that have nothing to do with letters but statements and comments you place on your social media account site for others to read.
There is no small rodent involved when the computer user talks about their mouse, which is the device used to ‘navigate’ around any computer program without keying in directions.
Just like finding your place in a book, you can use a digital ‘bookmark’ to mark websites that you use regularly, enabling you to find them easily.
When I talk about the ‘cloud’, you don’t have to look up or out the window. I’m not talking about those puffy things in the sky. The ‘cloud’ on the internet is a storage site online where you can place your documents and digital photos, and access them from any computer linked to the internet anywhere in the world.
‘Ports’ are no longer somewhere ships can dock, but digital pathways on your computer.
But the internet has also made it necessary to create new words to describe things that don’t exist in the physical world. Here are some new terms that have come out as a result of the internet and computers:
Software: Digital system that enable computer users to perform different functions such as wordprocessing, displaying and manipulating digital photos, keeping accounts and so on.
Browser: A software package that lets you view web pages, graphics and most online content.
Email: Essentially electronic mail. Email software enables users to send and receive messages, letters, documents and photos in digital format.
Blog: Short for ‘web log’ which is a modern online writer’s column. People can talk about anything or create blogs on specific topics that interest them, and others can read these blogs. The act of creating a blog is called ‘blogging’.
Download/Upload: The process of transferring a file from online to your computer or from your computer to online.
Malware: A malicious software used by hackers to gain access to your computer and files.
Phishing: Methods used to defraud people of their personal accounts.
Punctuation marks have also not escaped the impact of the internet on our language. People have adapted some punctuation marks to get around issues presented by this new medium for expression. At this stage, social media users cannot italicise words to place emphasis on words or phrases. Instead they use forward strokes before and after the word or phrase.
Similarly, the rarely used tilde (~) has been brought in to replace a dash for quotes and the author of a quote.
The asterisk (*) is used to indicate a corrected word or phrase and can be placed before or after the word or phrase.
The hash (#) has also been given new life as a hashtag that is used to highlight a topic in social media, allowing others to find comments and posts that are tagged as such.
The ‘at’ sign (@) has been given the job of linking to a person’s profile and in email addresses. It is also growing in use on signs, posters and advertisements as a contemporary sign for ‘at’ such as ‘come to the show @ 4pm’.
It is curious that these rarely used punctuation marks are now gaining new jobs while common punctuation marks – like commas and apostrophes – are being abandoned. Young people especially, don’t want to be burdened with applying traditional grammar rules if they can get away with dispensing with punctuation and spelling, to get the message across as quick and as efficient as possible. Social media has become a creative ground for a new kind of shorthand – Words and phrases are shortened or abbreviated, any ‘unnecessary’ words are dropped, and symbols used to convey whole words and phrases.
What does this mean for literacy in our Brave New Generation? Literacy has become more visual and less about words and their construction. Ambiguity has crept in where words and misspellings, mis-punctuation can mean other things. The new generations don’t know the difference between the possessive itsand the contraction it’sfor it is. They mix up there, theirand they’re. And yourand you’re. They have no idea of past and present tenses.
However, the evolvement of a new form of shorthand visual language demonstrates how the Brave New Generation can adapt to a new way of communicating. Language is always evolving. English is a complex language with roots in German, Latin languages, French, Norse and older European. We don’t use the thee’s and thou’s of an older form. Literacy is about effectively been able to understand each other through our written and spoken word. Keep your hand on the tiller to explore the seas of the internet age.