The abbreviations OMG, FYI, and LOL are now officially part of the Oxford dictionary.

file5981249389157Does that mean you should write academic papers with titles like “OMG, Hamlet was bi-polar” or start every sentence in your job application with FYI?

Maybe not. But it’s important to note that people sometimes get very emotional or opinionated about those kinds of developments, there are outcries against the “defilement” of language, especially by older speakers who remember the times when people still spoke “good [insert name for language here]”.

The reason for this is that people are very territorial with their language. It’s not a secret that within every certain culture you’ll find a variety of different sub-cultures that all speak differently for the benefit of forming identity.

But as much as an emotional reaction to certain developments in a language can be understood as breaches of territory or identity, you might be interested to understand the phenomenon on a more global scale, not limited to one language or sub-language.

In other words: How do new “words” such as OMG, FYI, LOL become part of an official language?

The process by which this happens is called Language Change.

It can be argued that Language Change is one of the strongest determining factor in a language because it affects all of its features like grammar, word-composition, meaning, and many more. Therefore whatever grammatical rules, words or or spelling conventions you might find in a certain language, they are all subject to change!

But how does this work, this change?

To be absolutely honest with you, nobody really seems to know, although not everyone will admit that.

There are various theories:

One of those is the theory of language economy which explains that a speakers always wants to communicate as economically as possible, therefore shortening words, replacing old ones with new ones, changing grammatical structures to be more efficient, etc.

While that sounds reasonable it’s never quite clear what economical means. Sometimes it is misunderstood by thinking that people are lazy and therefore shorten their language, which obviously is not always the case. And while there are a lot of attempts to reduce this language economy to a formula, none seems to catch and explain all of the phenomena found in language change.

The Invisible Hand

A more broader theory is the “Invisible Hand” explanation by the German linguist Rudi Keller. The term, borrowed from the realm of economics means here, that although we think in terms of natural and artifical phenomena in this world, there is a third kind of  phenomenon which is both natural and artificial.

For a language, that means that it is both artificial because it is created by human beings, and natural, because it develops over time in quite marvellously mysterious ways. (Imagine American settlers talking Sheenisms, or writing Victorian English in a chatroom! )

The Invisible Hand describes the process by which we get an unintended (!) result through seemingly random acts of individuals.

A simple way to explain this process is by looking at the development of a traffic jam:

You are driving your car while the person in front of you starts to slow down. As a consequence, you’ll have to slow down, too. Which, in turn, has effects on the person behind you – slowing him down, too.

In the end you get a traffic jam, while nobody intended to create one.

It’s the same with language change: Nobody intends to do it, yet the cumulation of our individual acts of speech (or writing for that matter) create change.

If you want to find out more about the finer distinctions, check out the Wikipedia article on the “invisble hand explanation” or, even better: read Keller’s book, here’s a link to the English translation: On Language Change