Is social media increasing the pace at which languages change?

May 8, 2019
Is social media increasing the pace at which languages change?

Language evolution is a fascinating process. Over time, language can evolve to the extent that modern-day speakers are unable to understand the language’s previous form. Everything from invasions to economic migration can impact how a language evolves. In recent times, social media has played a role in this evolution – and its widespread use means that linguistic changes are spreading rapidly, perhaps even speeding up the pace at which the languages we use are changing. 

Those changes are seeping into formal writing. Tomedes regularly undertakes blog post translation, for example, and has seen a shift towards a more informal, engaging writing style evolve over the past decade, with the influences of the way that we use language on social media clearly spreading to the way we use it elsewhere. 

A potted history of the English language

English provides a good example of how dramatically a language can change over time. The earliest historical form of the language is Old English. Also known as Anglo-Saxon, it was brought to Great Britain around the middle of the 5th century by Anglo-Saxon settlers. Its use spread around England and parts of southern and eastern Scotland, where it was happily used until William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066.  

The Norman Conquest of 1066 saw the upper classes adopt Anglo-Norman as their language of choice, which ultimately led to what became known as Middle English replacing Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary specifies 1150 to 1500 as the period during which this was spoken, with Modern English gradually replacing it due to significant pronunciation changes (mainly to long vowel sounds) over the course of the 15th to 17th centuries. 

Social media and language evolution 

While it’s natural for languages to change over time, more significant changes – such as the shift from Old English to Middle English – tend to result from some kind of event causing a fundamental linguistic shift. While social media doesn’t seem to be about to spawn an entirely new version of English (let’s ignore, for the moment, how many users are happy to play fast and loose with established grammatical rules), it does seem to be accelerating the pace at which the language is evolving. Indeed, Oxford Dictionaries reports that, “the combination of informal, personal communication and the mass audience afforded by social media is a recipe for rapid change.”

This isn’t just about the introduction of new words, though of course these play a huge part in how quickly English is changing (along with other languages around the world). The linguistic changes are also resulting from the increased use of acronyms (can you believe that LOL has now been around for 25 years?), our use of hashtags on Twitter spilling over into everyday speech patterns (#standard) and the ability to indicate facial gestures and movements by using asterisks (*facepalm*). Ultimately, widespread use of social media is changing the way in which we use language, as well as the language that we use. 

And that ‘widespread’ use is just that – 3.48 billion people now use social media. That’s very nearly half of the world’s 7.2 billion people. Given the extensive social media audience, it only takes one influencer to start using a term in order for it to quickly spread to the masses. 

So, is social media changing the pace of language evolution? 

The question above, in part, answers itself. It is thanks to social media that we now use ‘so’ – a former midsentence conjunction – to open questions and in many cases to begin answering them. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is notorious for this and it has become commonplace in spoken language as well as written. That’s not to say that ‘so’ was first used in this way on social media (it wasn’t) but rather that social media has led to it becoming commonplace at a much more rapid rate than would probably otherwise have occurred. 

(On the question of ‘so’ being catapulted into the limelight as a means of initiating a sentence, opinion is divided – it’s a point of linguistic discussion that ranges well beyond the scope of this particular article!)

So, it seems clear (do you see what we did there?) that social media is certainly playing a key role in how fast language is changing. Its influence ranges from points of grammar to the words that we use and the very way that we use them. Something to bear in mind next time you LOL at someone’s latest status update! 

Final thoughts

How do you feel about the way that social media is changing the language that we use? We would love to hear your thoughts, so do leave a message below to share your opinion. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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