By Published: Feb. 6, 2020

Linguist says the digital age is changing communication in ways that enrich rather than degrade communication

In text messages, you can express gratitude by saying “thanks,” with no period. But your meaning can be cloudier if you plop a period behind “thanks.”

The former means all is OK. The latter could suggest the writer is miffed.

The digital age is changing how people communicate—with emoticons, acronyms, memes and apparently haphazard punctuation—but University of Colorado Boulder Professor Kira Hall sees the move as academically compelling, not linguistically alarming.

That’s why Hall, a professor of linguistics and anthropology, gives students the chance to study the changing language of the digital age through her seminar-style class called Language and the Digital Media. The course focuses on the effects that new and changing language within digital space has on society and written communication. 

“It’s a new kind of change, we’ve never had so many people participating in a kind of written communication that is so broad and extensive,” Hall says. 

“It used to be that written communication was for academics or writers, people who had certain kinds of elite education, at least for the ones whose writing would be heard and circulated. But now everybody’s writing. All of their ideas can circulate. And so, you have a kind of democratization of written language that we haven’t seen before.” 

Kira Hall

Kira Hall, professor of linguistics and anthropology

In this emerging democracy, writers enjoy liberty in their punctuation. During the course, Hall’s students found that in informal modes of digital communication, punctuation serves many of the same functions that “gesture or tone of voice serve in face-to-face communication,” she says. In fact, scholars of digital communication have named this phenomenon ’typographical tone of voice.’”

Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch uses that phrase in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Languagearguing that punctuation, emojis, non-standard capitalization, memes and the like do the work that hand gestures, body language and tone of voice serve in oral communication.

Older generations tend to use periods online as they do on paper: to conclude a sentence. But younger generations tend to use line breaks to conclude a sentence, she notes. “So, when they do use a period, it means something.”

But students in Hall’s class found that, even among younger generations, the use of periods is not static, that the rule has exceptions. 

“For example, when communicating about serious emotional topics (when texts tend to be longer), they do use periods. Similarly, when communicating with superiors about work-related issues, they also readily use periods,” Hall says.

As with other kinds of democratization, the linguistic sort simultaneously unleashes freedom and anxiety.

“I would say that my students and younger generations are possibly more aware of the kind of style shifting that needs to go into written language to target different kinds of media or sources or people.”

Students of Hall’s class praised the course: “It was a great space to come into. We all sat in a circle, which I really enjoyed, and we would just discuss things,” says one of Hall’s students, Mae Cosgrove. “Everything in this class was so subjective, and it was really interesting to hear the perspective of some of my classmates.” 

Throughout the course, Hall’s students learned techniques to help them understand how digital communication like emoticons and memes has evolved to mimic the complex emotional expression of face-to-face interactions. 

“I think now digital users have adapted and created ways of expressing that complexity that also exists in face to face,” Hall says. “Our task as researchers is to figure out what that complexity is, and it is a new terrain that is comparatively unestablished. So that’s why a class like the one I taught (last) semester was really exciting for all of us.”

I think now digital users have adapted and created ways of expressing that complexity that also exists in face to face.​"

Hall’s prior research with language patterns and youth in India led her to recognize that language patterns were largely facilitated within digital media. Texting, videos and smartphones were relevant within every conversation. 

“I started to see how important digital media is in everyday life, and so my book that I’m writing and my research that’s coming out of this is really about how digital media is so intimately incorporated into everyday interaction now that you can’t study interaction without it.”

This intimate incorporation of digital media into society has caused a moral panic among older generations who believe that youth are ruining the English language, according to Hall and her students. They acknowledge that much of this panic stems from a false impression of how younger people use language. 

“You’ll often see news accounts that show text messages that make no sense. A lot of those examples are fabricated,” says Hall. 

“It’s that kind of exaggeration of what text messages look like that makes youth seem foreign, and it also makes them look like they’re doing something scary and wrong that we can’t understand. … Any linguist will tell you that language always changes. The fact that we have new forms of language that are emerging in digital media is not a bad thing; it’s just the way things are.” 

Hall’s students say the course helped them grow a deeper understanding of the language change brought about by digital media. 

“For us as linguists we find this language change very fascinating,” says Cosgrove. “I would absolutely recommend taking this or any course you can take with Kira. She really makes sure that you know the material, know the concepts and know what you’re talking about and that’s why I would recommend it. She’s a phenomenal teacher.”  

Even saying oops is changing

College students, but not their parents, often correct mistakes in texts with an asterisk: If they write, “I live pizza,” they’d correct themselves by writing, “I *love pizza.”

High school students, Hall’s students noted, think the asterisk is old school. The younger generation tends to favor the “ha ha” tapback feature.

But these are not universal conventions. Hall’s students observe significant differences across smaller communities of internet users, even those in the same generation.