Tag Archives: history

Technology and Language Change: How Memes and Emojis Are The Language of The 21st Century and That’s OK

Prescriptivism is dead. That should be read as a warning of bias. This article is written from the perspective that overly regimenting language is a harmful practice. (Counterarguments and thoughts about this topic are more than welcome in the comments section below!) In a linguistic sense, prescriptivism stunts natural language change and prevents linguistic growth. Without language change, Latin would never have become the Romance languages. That’s right – no Italian, French, or Spanish, to give examples from just one language family.

Technology is a huge (and still growing!) part of the modern world and as such it impacts nearly all aspects of our lives – language included. Therefore, letting technology run its course on language brings our communication more fully into the 21st century.

Brief intermission:

My name is Julianna Pakstis. Hello and welcome to my first WIC blog post! As you can tell from the topic of this post, I have a fascination with language and how it has changed over time. I studied Classics and Linguistics at Penn as an undergrad but have recently switched gears a bit to become a Library Science Master’s student at Rutgers University. And that, ironically, led me back to Penn. I am now an intern at WIC and am excited to explore how WIC connects technology to various academic areas… like the internet and Linguistics.

Now, back to the post.

The study of language change has a long history. Therefore, criticism for language change has a long history as well. The impact of technology on

Plato’s Phaedrus is an ancient document which contains a criticism of the technology of writing.

language is no exception to this criticism. From writing itself, to chatspeak, and emojis, there is and seemingly always has been an outcry against the supposed degradation of language these forms of communication cause. There are voices in favor, too, however. There are authors, linguists and journalists alike, who do not condemn the new forms but embrace them, analyze them, and use them, whether professionally or simply personally.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch is one of those authors. Back in 2014, she did a fairly neutral post on meta-analysis of the language of doge meme for the internet on website, The Toast. In this article she considered whether visual elements, like the Shiba Inu with a piercing expression or the bright comic-sans font made the meme. What she ultimately discovered, however, was that the peculiar grammar of doge meme was its defining feature.

For those readers who might not be familiar with doge meme, the viral image consists of a picture of a Shiba Inu dog with short, punchy phrases written in bright comic-sans layered over top. Typically the words read like this: “such dog,” much cute,” and perhaps most frequently “wow.”

It’s very easy to create your own exemplary meme.

McCulloch concluded that “doge phrases,” short one or two word adjectival phrases, are most characteristic of the meme. You can now hear someone IRL (“in real life”) say “such wow” and envision the meme as the two of you recall a common mental image. While doge speak may not be the most popular internet borrowing for vocalized speech (OMG or LOL may be a better example there), it is a unique way of speaking that can definitively be traced back to this particular meme. When a way of speaking integral to a meme integrates into real life speech, language has changed by technological cause.

The end result is that people have nuanced ways to connect ideas and words. They still know the standard form of the language but can now manipulate it in line with new information.

The doge meme example leads to interesting questions about how fast, mass, and written communication, like the internet, affect language and orthography itself. The orthography issue is a hot topic lately as emojis “threaten” to destroy language as we have always known it.

First, we must tackle the debate of whether or not emojis are or can become a language inemojis and of themselves. There are compelling arguments on both sides, but the consensus right now seems to be that emojis enhance communication but do not have a clear grammar of their own. This lack of clarity (or presence of ambiguity) prevents them from really
overthrowing verbal and written communication. To be fair, one could say that even our established vocabulary and grammar has large amounts of ambiguity and therefore does not count as a language, though that would go against the common definition that what we speak and write is our language. This is a complicated issue so, again, your thoughts are welcome in the comments sections.

In the end, emojis, chatspeak, and memes are rapidly changing forms of expressions. The rapidity and universality are products of their technological context. Because they enhance communication, these symbols are part of our writing system and can be considered language. Rather than destroying language, however, these computer mediated forms of communication participate in a linguistic feature as old as language itself – change.

Authentic Images, starting with Andy Warhol?

This guest post is written by Heather Glaser, Assistant Fine Arts Librarian, with assistance from Elizabeth BeckKirby Bell and Ed Deegan. It describes image resources at Penn Libraries that can be very helpful for undergraduate course projects:

It seems like every semester there is a course offered on Penn’s campus that touches upon some aspect of Andy Warhol’s career and legacy.  What some folks don’t know is that part of Warhol’s early career occurred right here on Penn’s campus – specifically in the Anne & Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library.   On October 8, 1965, Warhol’s first exhibit opened at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which was located in what is now the Fine Arts Library.  Warhol himself described the evening as:

When the kids saw me and Edie walk in, they started actually screaming.  I couldn’t believe it – one day you’re in an art gallery in Toronto and not one person comes in all day to see you, and then suddenly there are people who get hysterical at the sight of you.  It was so crazy. 

Older people in evening gowns were next to kids in jeans.  They had to lead us through the crowd – the only place we wouldn’t get mobbed was on some iron stairs that led up to a sealed off door….We were on those steps for at least two whole hours.  People were passing things up to be autographed – shopping bags, candy wrappers, address books, train tickets, soup cans.  I signed some things but Edie was signing most of them “Andy Warhol” herself. There was no way to leave – we knew we’d be mobbed as soon as we came down. 

Finally the officials ordered the fire department to break through the sealed off door behind us with crowbars, and we were led out that way, through a library, onto the roof, over an adjoining building, down a fire escape, and into waiting police cars.  Now things were getting really interesting.

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol, 1965 (full-size photo restricted to Penn community)
Fine Arts Staircase
Same location in recent photo

Here are then-and-now photos to enjoy – of the stairs Warhol described – located right behind the circulation desk of the Fine Arts Library.

A photo of the actual scene is one of many treasures in the Fine Arts Library Image Collection, which could be an ideal source of images for your next project.

Warhol’s entire description may be read in his book currently available at the Fine Arts Library Reserve Desk (Call number NX512.W37 A2 1983):

Warhol, Andy. POPism: the Warhol ’60s. New York: Harper & Row, 1983, c1980. pp.132-133.