#language: evolution in the digital age

The hashtag, or #, has recently been named UK children’s word of the year. Children’s dictionary writers at Oxford University Press analysed 120,421 entries to BBC Radio 2’s annual short story competition. They found that under 13s were using the hashtag symbol in a new way: to add emphasis or to signal a comment in their story-writing. According to Vineeta Gupta, head of children’s dictionaries at OUP, examples of this phenomenon might include: “This is a wonderful day, #sunny” or “I have the best family, #fantasticfamily”.

This finding is remarkable in two ways. First, the hashtag is self-evidently not a word. It was developed for use in Twitter feeds. So how is it that it can take on a new meaning, a trait normally the preserve of language? Celebrated examples of language change include the word “queen”, which 1,000 years ago could mean woman or wife. Today, it refers exclusively to a female monarch. Or take the change in the meaning of the word “gay”; until the late 19th century this was used primarily to describe feeling carefree or showy. Second, the hashtag, developed for use in digital communication, is now crossing over into more traditional modes of language production, such as story writing. So what has prompted children, normally too young to hold Twitter accounts, to begin to use the hashtag in this new way? And what does this innovation say about new forms of digital communication: is technology giving rise to new types of language?

Read more: The Guardian

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