Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch is interested in how people laugh on the internet.
Take the abbreviation “lol.” While it started off quite literal, with people using it to signal actual laughter, it has now taken on more of an ironic double meaning. Nowadays, a mildly annoyed person might text their friend “I hate you lol,” using the abbreviation to soften the harsh phrase.
This, and many other subtleties of internet lingo, are subjects of McCulloch’s new pop linguistics book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. McCulloch spoke about her book Tuesday evening in Seattle at Textio, a startup that develops augmented writing technology.
While many people think of English as being contained in libraries of books, McCulloch sees the internet as a more appropriate metaphor for the language and its dynamism.
“When you make a post, you cause certain portions of the internet to spring into existence — the way that when you invent a new word, you cause that word to spring into existence,” she said.
Sometimes, McCulloch even goes straight to the source by asking internet denizens about new language trends. Most recently, she posted a Twitter poll asking people if they sometimes use a space before an exclamation point, and why.
After McCulloch delivered a 20-minute talk on Tuesday, she joined a panel discussion alongside Textio cofounder and CEO Kieran Snyder, who is also a linguist. Paul Constant, co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books, moderated the discussion.
Textio helps companies analyze and refine their job postings to use language that is more likely to attract job applicants and improve the diversity of those candidates.
Snyder spoke about how even ostensibly “neutral” language, like professional English, can exclude people.
“When you use corporate jargon — words like stakeholders or synergy or KPIs — in how you’re communicating at work, it turns out that people of color tend to opt out of engagement,” she said. “Those words grew up in a predominantly white, corporate culture, and they developed kind of cultural significance.”
But while “formal language often wins the battle, I think informal language typically wins the war,” Snyder added. Language change has been shown to originate mostly in marginalized groups — young people, cultural minorities, girls and women, for example. “Informality is the thing that starts out as out-group, and it becomes the way we’re all talking 20 years later.”
McCulloch expressed similar thoughts on linguistic innovation.
“The prescriptive, English-teacher way of addressing language assumes that everyone has the same goals when it comes to language,” she said. “I don’t think it’s incorrect to evaluate writing and say, ‘OK, this writing did a better job and this didn’t.’ But we need to be explicit about what our goals are for individual pieces of writing — and in many cases, impressing dead people is not that goal.”