The internet has fundamentally changed the way we communicate with each other. It has given us GIFs, memes, emoji, and more initialisms than anyone can count — and in the process, it’s created a whole new set of norms for informal writing.
In her new book Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch unpacks those norms one by one. She delves deeply into the corpus of internet speech to figure out the patterns in the way we write to one another online: what we really mean when we type “lol,” why periods seem so passive-aggressive in texts, and why emoji became so popular so fast.
McCulloch isn’t a prescriptivist, and she has no interest in telling her readers that one particular way of using language is more correct than others. Instead, she tracks how people are really communicating right now, and what meaning they are conveying to each other with their particular choice of capitalization style and GIF. What makes Because Internet so compelling is that McCulloch can parse the subconscious choices we all make every day as we type, and explain exactly how we learned to make those choices in the first place.
Here are the seven most interesting things we learned about internet language from Because Internet.
The keyboard smash has patterns
You know how when there just aren’t words to express how you’re feeling, you have to smash the keyboard at random and create a string of incomprehensible characters to convey your sense of utter emotional overload? Well, it turns out we’re not really smashing those keys randomly at all.
According to McCulloch, keyboard smashes almost always begin with “a,” often begin with “asdf,” and almost never include numbers or letters of different cases — they’re either all uppercase or all lowercase. And, McCulloch writes, most people will actually re-smash their keyboards if the first version of a keyboard smash they produce doesn’t look quite “right” to them. Some even manually switch the letters around to fine-tune their keyboard smash.
But lately, a new kind of keyboard smashing has begun to trend, one that’s more heavy on g’s and b’s and h’s than a’s and d’s and f’s. That’s what keyboard smashing looks like on the touchscreen of a smartphone, and it’s on the rise.
Spellcheck actually changed spelling
Americans have been using z’s at the end of words like “organize” and “realize” for centuries. For a long time, however, Brits used both z’s and s’s, so that in the UK, both “organize” and “organise” were correct.
But then spellcheck came along and demanded standardized spelling, and made -ise endings the default in their British English settings. And that, writes McCullock, is what led “to an upswing in -ise endings among the general British typing public and the perception that -ize is only for Americans.”
The first internet slang dictionary predates the internet
Early programmers at schools like Stanford and MIT maintained a file of “hacker slang” that they started in 1975. They called it the Jargon File, and it became the basis of the 1983 book The Hacker’s Dictionary, as well as the updated 1991 and 1996 editions The New Hacker’s Dictionary. The earliest surviving version of the Jargon File, from 1976, contains still-current computer slang like “feature,” “bug,” and “glitch” (as in, “That glitch is a feature, not a bug”), as well as now-defunct programming jargon like JFCL for “to cancel.”
Social slang didn’t come to the Jargon File until 1977, which saw such innovations as “R U THERE?”, “BTW,” and “FYI.” But at this early stage, McCulloch writes, the language people used to write to each other on computers was really a technical professional language. It was a jargon.
There are many layers to the humble “lol”
The acronym “lol” was first invented sometime in the 1980s by a Canadian man named Wayne Pearson, who was so amused by something a chatroom buddy of his wrote that he a) laughed out loud, and then b) wrote “LOL” in the chat. But these days, most of us know that writing “lol” generally doesn’t mean you are actually laughing out loud. So what has it evolved to mean instead?
McCulloch cites the linguist Michelle McSweeney, who studied the use of the word “lol” in text messages between 15 different Spanish-English bilingual people ages 18 to 21 in New York City. McSweeney found that appending “lol” to a sentence signals to a reader that there’s a new layer of meaning on top of the literal sense of the words. It’s an irony marker.
For that reason, “lol” tends to show up a lot in situations that demand plausible deniability: when people are flirting (McCulloch offers the example “you look good in red lol”), or asking for sympathy (“lol I’m writing an essay :(”), or need to soften a sentence that might otherwise sound like an accusation (“what are you doing out so late lol”). It never appears in situations that demand complete emotional sincerity, which is why in most situations, it would be cruel to tell someone you love them for the first time by texting, “I love you lol.”
There is an explanation for why older people fill their texts with ellipses
You know how people who didn’t grow up with computers like to pepper their typing with strings of periods or commas or dashes, and then they don’t understand why that move seems incredibly passive-aggressive to people who grew up online? It turns out there is a reason for it!
In the pre-internet era, when people wrote informal notes and postcards to each other by hand, they naturally separated their thoughts with dashes or ellipses to suggest a speech-like cascade of thoughts. Ending a sentence with a period was for more formal writing, like essays or business letters. People who grew up online tend to have the same aversion to periods when they’re writing informally, but their solution is generally to use a line break to convey their real-time thoughts instead.
As McCulloch points out, each generation’s thought separator of choice is the more efficient option for the medium in which they learned informal writing. On paper, a line break would take up valuable real estate, but a string of dots or a dash takes up hardly any extra space. Onscreen, you don’t have to worry so much about room, but you do have to think about how much effort it takes to type something — and you can create a line break with a single keystroke.
The spoken hashtag is just the latest punctuation mark to make the jump from writing to speech
Hashtags jokes are pretty hacky, but they’re not a new kind of speech form. As McCulloch points out, our idiom vocabulary is full of spoken punctuation: “That’s the facts, period,” or “These quote-unquote experts.”
“Spoken ‘hashtag,’” she writes, “is just the latest in a long list of creative strategies to say without saying, add context, control the flow information, or indicate that something is of more or less importance.”
Emoji aren’t a new language. They’re a new way to gesture.
McCulloch argues that emoji became popular as fast as they did not because they added to our vocabulary but because they let us “talk with our hands” in writing the way we do when we speak out loud. The most popular emoji (and GIFs!) tend to signify gestures so common that they already have distinct English terms — thumbs-up, wink, eye roll — and a recognized linguistic function. They’re called emblems, and they can either work as part of a sentence or stand alone.
“Every culture that’s been studied has gesture, and we gesture along with our speech even when it’s communicatively useless, such as when we’re talking on the phone,” writes McCulloch. Before the printing press, we tried to integrate gestures into writing through illustrations in the margins of texts (think all of those illuminated medieval scrolls), and after the press made it difficult to illustrate formal writing, people continued to dot informal scribbled notes with communicative doodles. Those doodles began to make their way into internet writing with the advent of the first emoticon, : – ), in 1982, and then went on to blossom into the vast expressive form of emoji.
And those emoji are just one part of the way we talk on the internet now, and of the new, flexible, and ever-evolving way we do language online — the new ways we’re finding to communicate with each other more effectively than ever.