How the Internet Has Changed the Way We Speak

"I can't even" is Internet slang that indicates a person has been rendered speechless due to happiness or exasperation. (Photo: MilosStankovic/iStockphoto).

In 2010, 4Chan founder, Christopher Poole, was called to the stand during the trial of a man suspected of hacking into Sarah Palin's email account and was asked to define Internet terms, such as "trolling" and "rickrolling" for the court.

When the transcripts were shared online, they resulted in quite a few lolz, but Poole's testimony is a good example of how Internet speak can seem like another language to the not-so-Web-savvy.

Just as there are dialects of the English language, there are also sociolects — social dialects associated with certain groups — on the Internet.

For example, there's lolspeak, which features deliberate misspellings and improperly conjugated verbs — all meant to sound like the mental musings of cats.

While it may be difficult to read at first, exposure to enough lolcats can increase one's lolspeak proficiency.

As one user notes, it used to take him at least 10 minutes to "read adn unnerstand" lolspeak, but "nao, it'z almost like a sekund lanjuaje."

Before lolspeak, there was leetspeak, a way of writing that substitutes numerals or other characters for letters. While the 1337 understand leetspeak, n00bs would likely be baffled.

Such sociolects have sprung up across the globe, from the "much intellectual" Dogespeak (right), inspired by a Shiba Inu's internal monologue, to Martian, a language created by Chinese Web users that features phonetic spellings and archaic Chinese characters.

Our evolving language

Words used in these sociolects and from the online community in general, often make their way into the wider lexicon.

This is why you'll find both "selfie" and "woot" in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

Language changes quickly on the Internet and it leaves an extensive record, giving linguists the opportunity to monitor its evolution in a way that's impossible for spoken language.

"The Internet is an amazing medium for languages," David Crystal, a linguistics professor at the University of Bangor, told BBC. "Language itself changes slowly but the Internet has speeded up the process of those changes so you notice them more quickly."

At one time, "Google" was simply a search engine, but now it's also a verb. Today, you can "ship" a package, but you can also "ship" two characters, meaning you're emotionally invested in their relationship — especially if that couple is your OTP.

This evolution of language isn't just limited to unique spellings and the creation of new words. The Web has also coined phrases and expressions that not only appear in our Facebook statuses and tweets, but also our speech.

Using Internet lingo like "I can't even," "all the feels" or "What is air?" is a way to communicate familiarity with the Web or even a belonging to a particular online community.

"Internet speak is basically its own slang," Yohana Desta writes on Mashable. "Slang in itself is used to perpetuate cool, to show that you fit in."

The Web has even transformed language patterns.

"Slash," once simply a punctuation mark, is now being used in spoken language, such as "Would you like to see a movie slash get dinner?"

"Because" was once simply a subordinating conjunction, but, thanks to the Internet, linguists say it's now often used as a "prepositional-because" or a "because-noun."

For example, the word is traditionally used in a sentence like this: "He bought the book because he likes John Green." However, in Internet speak, such a statement could be simplified to "He bought the book because John Green."

Are we dumbing down language?

Communicating online presents challenges we don't face when speaking in person. Online, we can't rely on facial expressions, body language and tone of voice to help us discern meaning, so Internet speak evolved to address this.

Emoticons can help convey tone by embedding cues about the tone of our message.

For example, a smiley face can soften a statement or communicate that the speaker is merely kidding, as can dropping in a "lol."

Hashtags help us organize information and allow users across the globe to engage in a single ongoing conversation.

Even GIFs, animated images like the one below, can be used to convey messages. In fact, researchers at MIT are working to create a language from GIFs.

Evolutions like these that allow us to communicate online are just a few examples of how Internet speak is actually enriching language.

As Gerard Van Herk, a coordinator at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Newfoundland, told Mashable, "Today's youth are much more aware of the social and stylistic uses and meanings of different genres and language types, and are able to discuss them using metalinguistic terms like meme."