Word! The Language Column

Illustration: A smartphone, next to it a jagged speech bubble containing the word “Bro”
Social media – the perfect environment to use a few words to say nothing | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

The internet isn’t just “new territory” – it also changes the way we speak and write. Footballers in particular are fond of putting their foot in it.

By Stephan Reich

I still remember the first time I heard about the internet. In the mid-90s we had a school subject called Arbeitslehre (Work Studies), which included computers in its curriculum. To illustrate the function of the World Wide Web, the teacher told us you would be able to play chess on the internet with a person on the other side of the world. How unspectacular, thought my teenager-self at the time. After all, you could easily play chess with your brother or a mate. Internet, pah – a load of rubbish like that surely wouldn’t catch on. 

Whatever happened to the full stop?

Well, maybe that wasn’t my best prediction. Barely 20 years later the internet is an irreplaceable element of life, we work there, live there, manipulate elections there, and yes, probably some people even play chess against a person on the other side of the world there. What’s interesting is how internet use has an effect on language use. So I was recently bewildered to discover that the good old full stop has changed its meaning in the language of the internet: a British study showed that young people consider it ignorant and rude to end a sentence with a full stop in a chat. I could leave out the full stops throughout this column, after all I don’t want people to think I’m impolite, but then it might get a bit confusing, since I do tend towards longer sentences anyhow. So please take my word for it when I say that not a single one of my full stops means any harm.
In my opinion, the full stop is a good example of how the levels of meaning in language change depending on the medium in which they occur. In this respect, the internet and social media are like a patch of linguistic ice – everyone’s had to pass this way for some time now and people keep slipping up because meanings are always changing, language convention constantly shifting. Sports provide fantastic viewing material to demonstrate how language is evolving. Looking at professional footballers’ Instagram accounts, you can quickly see the absolute uniformity of the statements: 
  • Not the result we wanted. But we’ll keep on fighting.
  • The kind of reaction we needed to show after a tough last week.
  • What a fight. Proud of the team.
  • Bitter end to a good performance – but if we keep working hard, the results will follow.

Statements – banal

To name just a few examples. These statements are usually in English, after all they are addressing a global fanbase, but above all they are completely banal. Now you could argue that it’s only a little tagline for some artistically shot photos. But of course they are more than just that, it’s the way in which the players communicate with their many, many fans. The responses from other players are typical too – 99 per cent of them consist of flame emojis, in many cases coupled with the word “bro”.
Social media, it would seem, is the perfect environment to use a few words to say nothing. As if someone had put all the cliché-ridden footballer interviews into a tombola and the players are picking out a new banal ticket with each post: “What a result.” “Amazing performance.” “Great support.” “Proud of the boys.” “We keep on working.” And of course, most of the footballers have agents in the background who are responsible for the content (or more accurately: non-content). And this can also lead to funny little faux pas. Sunderland striker Victor Anichebe once tweeted: “Can you tweet something like: Unbelievable support yesterday and great effort by the lads! Hard result to take! But we go again!”. He clearly hadn’t even bothered to read what the agent had sent him, he just copied and published it. At the end of the day it really is just a banality.

Chilling out in League Four

And somehow it is understandable – after all, social media thrives on the excitement and heated tempers. If Anichebe had really come clean about why the result was so hard to take, all hell would probably have broken loose. It’s possible that he (and many other footballers with their banal statements) have learned their lesson from the story surrounding Julio Rey. What happened there was that the Spanish Fourth Division striker, who was 20 at the time, signed a contract with top-tier club Deportivo La Coruna, a dream come true. The only thing was, his contract was revoked a few days later because someone found a few tweets on the net dating from 2012 in which Rey had made some highly insulting comments about his dream club Deportivo. That’s another problem with this medium: it doesn’t forget. So it’s better to say nothing by always saying the same thing.
Rey never got out of the lower tiers, he’s currently kicking around in the Fourth Division with Arosa SC. Unfortunately his Instagram account is private, so I don’t know whether he’s “proud of the boys” or continues to “work hard” so that the “results” will then “follow”. But his profile picture makes him appear relaxed, he’s standing on the beach holding a surfboard – so as a League Four player he does seem to have time for the good things in life. Surfing for instance, or playing online chess with people on the other side of the world.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.