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Language Slang and Technology: Where's the Link?

In the 19th century, language scholars coined a new word — “wanderwort” — to describe old words that wandered global trade routes from one language to the next. Back then the word referred to spices and other exotic goods: “Cumin” can be traced linguistically to ancient Sumerian, “ginger” began its journey in Sanskrit and “coffee” and “orange” started in Arabic. The wanderwörter of the information age travel more quickly, of course, and now even the French, ever resistant to vulgar Anglicisms, have accepted “email” and “le selfie,” which in 2016 will make its debut in France’s Larousse dictionary. Here we collect some of the other adjustments that high-tech terminology has made to languages around the world.

Liked it? Loved it

In 2013, Facebook removed the thumbs-up icon from the now ubiquitous “Like” button, which the company has translated, with a few subtle variations, into 70 languages. While the thumb created cultural problems of its own (a raised thumb can mean “No. 1” in Germany and an unprintable insult in Iran), the intensity of “like” can also be tough to gauge from nation to nation. The Lithuanian patinka and the Afrikaans hou van both just mean “like,” for instance, whereas the Dutch vind ik leuk is a noncommittal “This is nice,” and the Danish synes godt om is a seemingly more emphatic “like this well.” Languages from top to bottom: Korean, English, Russian, Greek, Spanish, Malaysian, Hebrew

Lots of Laughs

In English, LOL stands for “laughing out loud.” In France, it’s “mdr,” for “mort de rire” (dying of laughter). In Thailand, the number “5” is pronounced “ha,” so putting three 5’s together, 555, reads as “hahaha,” or laughing out loud.

Song Remains the Same

In French, you tweetez and in German you twitterst. In American Sign Language, some of the many signs for Twitter and for the act of tweeting simply modify the A.S.L. sign for bird.

Obscene, Not Heard

Internet slang evolves quickly in China, where a lot of wordplay involves swapping in similar-sounding characters to get sensitive terms past censors. A classic example is the “grass mud horse,” 草泥马, a fictional creature usually depicted as an alpaca or a llama. That phrase is phonetically similar to a common insult that is unprintable in this magazine.

Exit Strategy

Around 2010 in Ukraine, Control-Alt-Delete, the Windows force-quit command, gained a specific name: Дуля (dulya). Dulya is also a three-fingered gesture, sometimes called the fig sign, that is a mellower version of an upraised middle finger.


We believe that culture (and language slang, obviously) is an essential component of language learning and add cultural topics to all our foreign language classes.


Credit: Ryan Bradley – NY Times

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