The future of language: What will we want to say tomorrow.

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Republican,
Issue 8, Friday 2 May 1997 on page 16.

The internet has opened up many new means of expression, all of them born out of brevity. Fast email zaps from one side of the planet to the other, faster Inter Relay Chat appears as soon as the return key is hit, and fastest, the Unix Talk system, flings what you have to say across the net character by character. I attended a meeting of my co-workers the other day while I was stranded in Brisbane using Talk and the feeling of immediacy was unrivalled. Ideas and typos appear and then retract themselves in real time so much so that the text has a 'body language'.

Getting the tone of your conversation across can be tricky when you have no idea of what sort of humour the recipient is possessed of. Detailed and clear descriptions of emotional content are a solution but they invariably kill the feel and bore the recipient. Enter emoticons, otherwise known and smilies. There are lots of 'em and the rules for their use are fluid. :-) is about the best known smilie. (if you don't get it, tilt your head at 90 degrees to the left.)

The notion that there are syntactical elements of language which relate entirely to how they look when your head is tilted is a new one. Most people are familiar with onomatopoeia (splash, hiss etc - their sound suggests their meaning), but there is now a wealth of words who's shapes suggest meaning. Smilies such as ;-) - for irony, :-( for unhappy etc are now so commonplace that they are forming part of the cultural landscape. Logos, icons, billboards are all adopting the emoticon as a means of further compressing meaning into symbols.

Words which describe themselves, ('reflexive adjectives' is the name I have given this class of words) are another example of words whose meaning is derived either from their shape or their feel. 'Enormous' is an enormous word, 'cool' is a cool word, but 'big' and 'clever' are neither big, nor clever.

As an evolving force, language is always adapting to better suit its environment. Human languages in particular exist in such a huge and rapidly changing environment that they evolve faster. We want to absorb meaning faster, so the linguistic compression utilities adapt. The evolution of narrative, meaning and language is happening right under our noses, right before our eyes.

Everything is a text, all text is imagery. The stories we tell in the future will never look the same.

Dave Sag © 1997

Dave Sag is a Director of Virtual Artists Pty Ltd