The (d)evolution of written communication

Wed, 27/12/2017 - 08:57

One of the most beautiful things about language is its ability to adapt and evolve along with its speakers. As our needs as speakers change, the language changes to accommodate our new communication types and patterns. This is clear if we look, for instance, at the major difference between a modern screenplay and the classic Shakespearean plays. This change reflects not only our means of communication that changes but also the shift in the context of our communication.

But not all these changes are always positive. Sometimes our needs are too simplistic. And if a language adapts to fit these needs, it will take quite a knock. That’s why add-on languages are created in and around our established languages in order for our needs to be met without the core of the language crumbling. And, in recent years, we’ve seen an influx of these add-ons. With shorthand and emojis ruling our daily correspondence, English has quite the challenge of staying true to its beautiful self. 

Texting shorthand

One of the earliest add-ons we saw was the shortening of words or replacing phrases with acronyms. The point of this was to decrease the number of characters we used when sending text messages to other people. Many early mobile service providers limited the number of characters available per text and so, in order to avoid unnecessary costs, people had to become inventive. “Great”, for example, was shortened to “gr8”, “tomorrow” to “2moro”, and so on. Alternatively, short phrases were replaced by acronyms. For example, “be right back” would become “brb” and “got to go” became “g2g”.

While these changes were great at solving the problem of character limitations, they lacked the consistency that established languages have. The best example is “lol”. For some, this may be interpreted as “laugh out loud”, while older users might still remember it as “lots of love”. It’s then easy to imagine the miscommunications that can come about. Over and above this, there’s no guaranteed longevity in these expressions. The abovementioned “g2g” and “brb” aren’t even used anymore. 


Once the shorthand texting approach became commonplace, the logical next step to shorten our interactions even further was to replace words or phrases with icons. Early on, regular symbols, numbers and letters were used for this (think, “<3” instead of “love” or “:3” instead of “kiss”). Now, illustrated icons form part of our standard phone keyboards. 

Once again we encounter the problem of consistency and semiotics. These icons are ever-changing and new ones are added with each software update. And there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on the intended meaning of many of them. Are they praying hands or a high five? Nobody knows. Not to even mention the much-debated ice cream emoji (better known for its negative connotation). 

The one constant

While all these add-ons are constantly changing and expanding, the English language as it’s represented in the dictionary is still the most reliable. The chances of miscommunication are far less when choosing from over 170 000 words (in the Oxford Dictionary). 

So, ultimately, when considering the fast-changing and ever-expanding communications industries, stick to the version of English with the most experience and highest success rate. After all, *heart icon* *moon* *mermaid* *cat* *fireworks*. 

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