There is a way by which languages travel on the internet that is both puzzling and fascinating. You have the incredible world of ever-increasing acronyms that continue to mark new communities, demographies and cliques that rule the web. You refresh your social media app because of FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), or that your decision to go on that holiday is because YOLO (You Only Live Once). If your next meeting memo tells you to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and you show up with old-fashioned pen and paper, you might just be reprimanded.
The web has also created words that have become so ubiquitous so fast that we don’t even realise that they are new and relatively strange. We have all taken selfies, and contemplated buying phablets; we have labelled people as geeks and have filed srsly along with asap as acceptable ways of emphasising our communication. We have heard people squee (which, if you say it out loud, makes the exact sound you feel when experiencing excitement) and give props (like the golden stars in kindergarten) or just end a conversation with a simple W/E (whatever)!
However, these are all examples of the international applications that take English as the lingua franca and are used in more global platforms and applications. Things become more interesting when this capacity of the digital world, with its accommodating attitude to misspelled words and bad grammar, meets what academic, linguist and translator Rita Kothari calls “chutneyfied” languages. In a multilingual country like India, we have always had people mixing languages with great elan. We are not just talking about historically accepted infusions like shampoo (originating from the Hindi word champi), or the high-brow integration of Urdu into Hindi that has been so popular in Bollywood. But in daily practice, we bring together multiple words, languages, structures with an ease that is as compelling as it is intriguing.
We see this mixing of languages in popular media all the time. From movie titles like Shaadi Ke Side Effects or advertisement slogans like “Think hatke”, from news headlines that talk about dil to dil ki baatein and politicians who promise “India ko shine kara denge”, we have taken the language mixing in our stride. It peppers our daily speech and thought, and has indeed become the default language of the social web.
There are many who despair at the ways in which young users of the internet in India use a language that has its own idiosyncratic spelling and grammar structure, that is made even more complicated by the mixing of languages that reflects the multilingual societies that we live in.
For digital natives, this wonderful khichdi of languages, where we no longer take Angrezi as the only bhasha, and mix it to create new structures of dil, dosti, yaari, are not conscious moves. They are not trying to be subverting or questioning the hegemony of languages.
Instead, it is a way by which they make the social web their own. In a world that is quickly becoming templatised so that all our communication is structured by the restrictive designs on the web, these experiments in mixing languages and exploding the boundaries of speech are ways by which they resist the homogenisation principle of digital networks. In their non-standard expressions and languages lie the possibilities of resisting corporate design and data mining of our interactions, producing unintelligibility for machines that cannot make sense of kya ho raha hai, and inviting human interaction that is playful, joyful and ekdum bindaas.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.