Social media

Smartphones and their impact on language and literacy

February 22, 2021

Editor’s note: This week’s topic is one that I have been meaning to write about for quite some time – the impact of smartphones and social media on the English language. But Abi beat me to it, covering everything I would have mentioned plus additional insights from bloggers and linguists. I have always held the opinion that new words, no matter their origin, are a sign of the constant evolution of our language. But Abi takes a look at both sides of the coin (see what I did there).

The words that surround us everyday influence the words we use. From selfie to LOL, social media is clearly having an impact on our language. Language today evolves with technology since so much of the written language we see is now on the screens of tablets, computers, and smartphones.

Words and phrases are coined

Social media’s ever evolving nature keeps our language in a constant state of change and regeneration. This constant change in language has altered our vocabulary, created new meanings for words we already knew, and leaves us with a feeling of responsibility to catch up with the speed of change.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have single-handedly increased not just the speeds of communication, but also the number of people we communicate with. Words such as “hashtag” “emoji” and “photobomb” have now become the new normal, all thanks to their coinage and usage on social media platforms.

Introduction of new vocabulary

Just the way social media changes language, so, too, does it introduce new usage, vocabulary and new acronyms. According to Discourse of Twitter and Social Media by Michele Zappavigna, conversation on social media facilitates different kinds of casual, interpersonal interactions.

Conversations on social media create a need for quick and succinct language and full verbal phrases have now become acronyms that are used in everyday settings, not just online. In such an environment, slang thrives, as it does in casual conversation.

The use of acronyms such as “LOL” (Laugh out loud) and “BRB” (be right back) are now common substitutes to whole sentences. These acronyms help users to speed a real time typed conversation and on smartphones they help to minimize the inconvenience of typing with tiny keys.

Influence on language and literacy

In her 2015 book, Exploring digital communication, Caroline Tagg explains that for any language practice to have social meaning, there must be a choice involved. A whole host of words which originated from social media have now become common place because we chose to use them in our every day lives. People use acronyms and terms such as “TTYL” and “viral” in everyday language because we are choosing to use unconventional terms for everyday communication.

The choice to speak unconventionally implies that the user means something by it. On platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, people are often criticized and have even been called illiterate for using ungrammatical or unconventional terms. People online often choose to type “wot” instead of “what” because it may hold a different meaning to them. As Tagg mentions, spelling then can be meaningful when users choose to deviate from the standard form. With the act of choosing between a licensed and an unlicensed term, it represents how an individual places themselves and their texts within the online society.

Some people may feel left out by all of this. Some people may feel despair at how acronyms and unconventional terms are creating a casual attitude towards grammar. But the truth is, social media is a big part of society, and it helps in both developing and subverting language.

Guest post by Abhishek Majumdar