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Is TikTok a breeding ground for a mutation of culture?

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology
Tony Thorne

Language Consultant, King’s Language Centre 

24 February 2023

Do you know your cottagecore from your simp? Tony Thorne has been writing, teaching and broadcasting about new language and linguistic and cultural change for three decades, and founded The Slang and New Language Archive at King’s.

As part of our series, Net Gains? how do we live well with technology – Tony comments on the speed and complexity of language development, happening through our use of social media.  In particular generations 

Tony Thorne pp

Observing language online has - in some ways – been a boon to those of us who research the development of lexis (items of vocabulary) and the characteristics of discourse (longer sequences of authentic written or spoken language).  

What was once spoken, and therefore normally inaccessible to outsiders, is now also written down, in messages, emails and social media postings, and so more readily collectable, describable and susceptible to analysis. Image-first platforms – such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok – are now the go-to environment for the celebration of youth fads, fashions and lifestyle trends, with 91-97% of 13-17 year olds reporting to use social media. Many of these platforms feature sub-varieties of language that replicate in the same way as memes or GIFs. But what does someone studying language, like me, make of all this and are there worthwhile objectives in analysing the innovations? 

The answer to the second half of the question is yes. We’ve all seen creative re-spelling, abbreviation and wordplay in memes shared via our own group chats or online. This and the coining of nicknames and catchphrases are all characteristic of new slangs deployed on social media apps and platforms predominantly by Gen Z – the age group born between 1997 and 2010, and by younger millennials. The same cohorts have evolved a high-speed turnover of fads, fashions and lifestyle labels – described as ‘aesthetics’ or ‘vibe-shifts.’ This is the development of language in action. The term ‘language’ itself expands in these contexts to become a sort of ‘multimodality’ in which verbal, symbolic and visual may operate simultaneously. 

Net gains- Tony Thorne- graphic
Some recent examples of the phrases in question and their translations -Definitions originally published on Babbel-

It’s heartening for me, having collected new language for three decades, that despite the seeming indifference of older commentators and experts, some, mainly younger, academic linguists are beginning to study these developments by applying statistical techniques to track the spread of new terms and analysing specifics of their users online.  

Sociolinguists and discourse analysts such as Dr Christian IlburyofEdinburgh University, with whom I collaborate, have been doing this for some time, uncovering and examining the online personas created and celebrated by new slang, labels, catchphrases and in-jokes. My own priority as a lexicographer is to record examples of new language and to monitor the changes in their meanings over time. This needs, however, to be supplemented by looking not only at the definitions, etymologies and variations in use that a traditional dictionary would include, but at the wider implications of the terms and their significance in real-life social settings.  
The language changes featuring on social media platforms are illustrative of differentiation and mutation in messaging and communicating and are only set to increase with 17% of 3-4 year olds now owning their own mobile phone.

Slang and related ‘non-standard’ varieties of language are still assumed by many to be frivolous, trivial and ephemeral, but technically, in their use of word-formation techniques, rhetoric, metaphor, allusion and subcultural tropes they are sophisticated.  

As indicators of new attitudes, feelings and forms of behaviour, they demand our attention. Our own ‘vibe-check’ (see translation) involves perceiving (perhaps even celebrating) that these new forms of language aren’t superfluous but indeed, the layering of a culture. 

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Tony Thorne

Tony Thorne

Contributor to Alumni Blog

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