Word! The Language Column
A picture kills more than a thousand words

Illustration: A person with a speech bubble, the speech bubble contains several emojis
Internet language: Can I write emojis? And can I also speak them? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

The mutability of language is no real cause for concern. Dirk von Gehlen on our misguided tendency to glorify the past and the endless adaptability of language.

By Dirk von Gehlen

“Do you have the feeling you can’t concentrate properly anymore either?” Before giving a hasty answer, please concentrate properly on what you’re going to say. Because if you say “yes”, it is very difficult to get you excited on today’s Word! column!

Many people answer this question about our supposedly declining powers of concentration in the affirmative, which has implications that weigh heavily on a great deal of public discourse. Because those who say they can’t concentrate properly anymore are implicitly ennobling (although this probably never occurred to them) the way people used to concentrate as the only “proper” way of going about it. After all, the “anymore” part of the question doesn’t just mean things are going downhill, it elevates the past to an ideal and a benchmark, as in: “The way it used to be done is the only proper way to do it.” The problem with that is that of the three phases of time available to us – past, present and future – the past is the only one that’s always unattainable.

Was everything really better in the past?

This is what makes claims about the past so persuasive: nobody can verify them. Nobody can gauge how “properly” you used to concentrate: it’s only your feeling about it that determines how “properly” you were concentrating. And once you assume that the way you were doing it was “proper” or “right” then any change that life naturally brings can only be “improper” or “wrong”.

To get back to our opening question, what this means is: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it won’t help to (consciously or unconsciously) tell yourself you’ve failed or got it all “wrong”. On the contrary, this narrative eventually becomes what the holiday postcard is to a holiday memory: it whitewashes the real experience.

Napoleon is quoted as having once said:” To understand a man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” People tend to see the period in which they came of age as the default mode not only for their own lives, but for all life: “The way things are when I’m growing up is what I consider normal.”

The way we use language is a case in point. In my final contribution to the Word! column, we’re going to delve into all the aspects that gender-neutral language has revealed in this regard. But before getting into that, we should note that written language is actually (still) used on the Internet. Just as we worry nowadays about our supposed attention deficits, people in the 1980s and ‘90s worried about becoming a society of illiterates. The cultural pessimists of that era thought that television, the dominant medium at the time, would spell the death of the written word, that moving images would steal not only all our attention, but also our desire and ability to read. In short, that a picture kills more than a thousand words!

Democratization of literacy

To emphasize how passé these fears seem to us now, I was momentarily tempted to write a flushed-face emoji after the previous sentence – but can one even say that in the first place: Can I write an emoji? 😳

I really concentrated on that question and came to the conclusion: Yes, we write emojis! Because the hybrid language cultivated on the Internet (for details, see my avocado column) is written and spoken – and that includes abbreviations, slang and emojis. We write more nowadays than probably ever before in the history of humankind – and most certainly a whole lot more than when people were worrying about an imminent decline in literacy. But literacy no longer refers only to canonical printed texts between heavy covers. Literacy has been democratized to encompass everything from texting to directions on an interactive map and subtitles on vertical videos.

I almost added the writing-hand emoji to the previous paragraph, which is often used to mark and emphasize statements on the web. This emoji is to digital ✍  readers, ✍ and, ✍ writers, ✍ what the highlighter was to readers of printed matter. At least that’s the way it was – and this is the unsettling part – last time I looked. That may have already changed here and there on the web. For the sheer abundance of digital reading and writing these days is directly reflected in the speed of changes to netspeak usage. The so-called eggplant emoji, originally just a symbol for a purple aubergine, has already become visual shorthand for the penis. But if you find this one too easy, try this TikTok clip explaining which emojis are “in” nowadays among Gen Z.

Language is adjustable

I’d like to skip the frequently asked question of whether these rapid changes in usage are a bad thing or not – and for one good reason: because the upshot of this accelerated rate of change is, above all, that it shortens the interval between the supposedly correct past and the consequently incorrect present. Language changes so fast these days that you don’t even have to be old anymore to feel you just can’t keep up. Fortunately, there are alternatives to despairing as early as primary school about the decline of civilization. Dresden-based linguist Simon Meier-Vieracker explains how to steel yourself against the glorification of the past: As he sees it, language is not a monument to be placed on a pedestal, it’s an adjustable driver of change that doesn’t merely rehash what was purportedly correct yesterday, but can adapt to new contexts today – all of which the linguistics professor does on TikTok

Which is further proof of the contention that contexts are increasingly important – which goes not only for this linguistic talking head on the supposedly banal platform for endless distraction. It also goes for the aubergine in a text message and, in the final analysis, for your powers of concentration, too. Your concentration may feel different from the way it used to – but it’s not because it has actually got worse, it’s because you’re using it in a different context. Just as you may be capable of cycling equally well in any weather, but you enjoy it far less when cycling against the wind. Does that make you a bad cyclist or a bad athlete?

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.