Rapid Linguistic Evolution

Sometimes I write things that I find interesting. Then I turn them in and forget about them, approximately immediately. Now, sometimes that seems like a waste to me, so on occasion I’ll post interesting things I wrote for school up here. This time around, it’s a mini-essay I wrote about the linguistics of tumblr, which was ostensibly for my psychology class last year. Enjoy!

The rapid development of new linguistic patterns is an oft-ignored attribute of the internet. It is, however, a fascinating one. There are discourse communities forming on-the-fly, evolving their own terms for things, evolving new concepts to name and link to words, creating new ways of speaking, as it were.

One of the most notable examples of this is tumblr. (Another good example would be reddit, but a significant amount of the local terminology that has evolved there is based upon the mechanisms that operate the entire site; referring to people not by “username” but by “/u/username” serves as the local equivalent of an @mention.) Tumblr is rather unique in that nearly all of the site’s users feel themselves to be part of a tightly-knit community. There exists within the social network a sense of belonging to the whole, to tumblr itself, with sub-groups also forming, different types of blogs clustering together into sub-communities. These differentiate further still: take, as the best example, the ‘fandom blogs’ –  thousands of different fandoms all take this label, as well as the greater ‘tumblr’ label, and then further categorize themselves into areas such as ‘Doctor Who,’ or ‘Sherlock.’

Of interest to this short essay, however, is the language used therein. One of the defining characteristics of the tumblr dialect is a near-complete lack of punctuation and conventional grammar: instead, an alternate form has arisen in which sentences are, as a rule, run-on, and will occasionally convert to caps (but noT aLL AT ONCE) to indicate excitement.

Other things (the use of “you little shit” as a familiar term, “get out” as a response to puns, etc.) arise as part of the same process: one of the most distributed, and accelerated, forms of social identity theory taking action that has ever been seen.

The formation of a discourse community is, of course, a clear example of social identity theory in action. People adopt terminology, ways of speaking, in order to fit in with those who surround them. New elements are introduced randomly and filter in to the group consciousness, becoming a new element of the discourse community over time. Tumblr is this taking place at an unprecedented scale: millions of users are all part of the same discourse community, the same group to which social identity theory is taking effect upon, all around the world.