Language in the digital age
By IMA on Dec 16, 2019
We all know language is a fluid thing. There’s a reason the frothy prose of Shakespeare is nearly impossible to follow without the side notes, and we no longer exclaim things like ‘wizard’ or ‘corr blimey’ when we’re excited. Language shifts much like fashion. What alters less, however, is the grammar – the skeletal structure that the fleshier, malleable vocabulary clings to. To language puritans, grammar is the most sacred part, so when it’s toyed with, it can ruffle feathers.
But it’s not just ‘youfs’ that flout maxims. Advertisers are increasingly bending the rules to come up with catchier phrases that empower and inspire consumers to part with their cash. ‘Be more dog’ was O2’s effort, and suddenly a noun became an adjective, depicting a kind of “go get ‘em” attitude. ‘Find your happy’ writes another self-help book and suddenly the intangible emotion of happiness becomes a commodified thing.
Much like the phase of writing in a saccharine, overly familiar tone, (popularised by Innocent), it’s likely the rule bending is a current copywriting trend, pandering to hashtags. As the trend is becoming increasingly watered down, and slogans become more nonsensical, it’s likely that brands will soon realise simple ideas with obvious meanings might resonate more with consumers.
Meme culture was once pegged as merely the procrastinations of ‘internet people’, with their stickmen drawings. But these days, memes have developed into a kind of rapid-fire caption competition, pairing highly adaptable and comically suggestive images with punchy social commentary. Memes are the inside joke that anyone with an internet connection can join in, and now they plaster the social noticeboards of Tumblr, Instagram and WhatsApp. No political current-affair or pop-culture snippet is safe from becoming ‘meme-ified’, and brands are beginning to catch on to their cultural significance.
Tide became the victim of a large-scale internet joke when the (hoax) suggestion of consuming their pods was turned into a popular meme. Now Tide Pods have to be sold and stored in extra child-proof boxes, with several cool-brand points deducted for having to pull the plug on the ‘fun’.
Memes are now an accepted part of digital communication, and are more increasingly the primary source of information for many young people. By participating in the conversation, brands are speaking their consumers’ language, and can express nuances that traditionally comms and advertising lacked. Caution should be taken, however: not every brand’s values will align with this particular culture. Tone deaf brands need not apply.
It’s been said that the introduction of voice search and the command towards Amazon’s Alexa is encouraging people, in particular children, to become ruder. The command set up to activate the voice search is ‘Alexa…’ followed by a simple command (‘look up the definition of…’, ‘call my mother…’, ‘tell me the weather in London’) with no place for polite prefixes like ‘please’ or ‘would you mind’.
Humanising the AI of Alexa and other voice-search engines creates a striking lack of distinction between technology and other human beings. While overbearing politeness is engrained in the psyche of British people, this may well be undermined by the way we’re learning to interact with technology, and it’s only set to get worse.
Emojis can (arguably) be traced back to ancient languages like Egyptian hieroglyphs. When you ask people what their favourite emoji is, it’s likely something will spring to mind. There is something incredibly intuitive about emojis: one image or pictograph can be used interchangeably to represent a whole set of meanings. They adapt to context and can be used to infer something different entirely. They can even be used like a secret code. Emojis are often used in China to communicate censored topics and politically controversial icons, like the artist Ai Wei Wei.
What does this mean? Emojis are common currency in the digital world now, but also transcend across to the physical – the confounding explosion of emoji cushions and inflatables is testament enough to their omnipresence. Hopefully everyone has learned their lesson from House of Fraser when they apparently (unconfirmed) employed a 16-year-old intern to ‘emoji-fy’ their Twitter page during an apparent moment of hysteria.
One linguistical phenomenon of technology and the internet is the way it has literally changed the meaning of particular words. We know that ‘sick’ now means good, and ‘shut up’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘shut up’, but technology has also wormed its way into our vocabulary.
For instance, a ‘hotspot’ was once a thriving location, known for nightlife, good food, or somewhere tourists gather in droves. Now, of course, a hotspot is a beacon of hope for the social media addict. Wi-Fi now lets you scroll through pictures of other people socialising, eating amazing food and visiting exotic places…
So what does all this mean? Well, as long as there are trends and changes in language, brands will latch on to them to talk in their customers’ language. But as always, when you have the same thing to say as everyone else, you better not sound like anyone else.