How the Internet Is Changing Pronunciation

Quick: How do you say the “read” in “read receipts”?

A group of youths read the Quran in a mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters)

Mispronouncing words, a generous friend of mine recently reminded me, isn’t necessarily a sign of dilettantism. It just means you often learn new words through reading rather than hearing.

And Americans are reading like crazy these days (hey, you’re doing it right now). Despite what you’ve heard about the blossoming age of mobile video and emoji-based discourse, people under the age of 30 are reading more books than their counterparts in decades past, and readers of all ages are increasingly reaching for a variety of platforms—cellphones, tablets, and laptops, along with good ole-fashioned paper. In an era of internet-connected smartphones, it’s possible to read more than ever—and not just books or news reports (which were always portable) but also dispatches from friends and family that now come via Facebook or text message instead of by speaking over the phone, as they might have in the pre-internet age.

The ubiquity of the web has created a golden age of text much the way it’s enabled a golden age of TV and journalism (golden for the consumer, anyway): More options at a user’s fingertips, many of them freely accessible, means tougher competition—which drives up quality. (Well, the quality stuff’s out there, anyway. It doesn’t mean that’s what everybody’s always reading.)

All of this text and the ways in which it’s disseminated is changing the way we relate to words—and to one another.

Consider, for instance, the curious case of the “read receipt.” You know, the little notification that pops up for the sender of a text message once the recipient of that message has opened (and ostensibly read) the text. Or, to use “read receipt” in a typical sentence: “Why does anyone keep ‘read receipts’ turned on?”

The other common question about read receipts is this: How do you pronounce the term? Do you say it in the past-tense, so it sounds like “red”? Or in the present tense, so it sounds like “reed”?

This was the subject of a brief but dizzying newsroom back-and-forth on Monday among colleagues who insisted that one or the other was definitely, absolutely, without question the right way. Our dialogue never reached the proportions of the Great Dark Chocolate Debate of last week, but we still never reached a consensus.  (I asked folks on Facebook and Twitter for their opinions and received similarly passionate yet inconclusive responses.)

Team “red” had a compelling case: A read receipt is a receipt that’s generated once the text message has been read. Therefore, past tense. But there was solid logic on team “reed,” too: Just think of it like a “repair receipt,” or “pay stub,” or “mailing receipt,” none of which are in the past tense even though they indicate an activity that’s already taken place. (I’m team reed, all the way. Also, “gif” has a soft “g,” like giraffe. I mean, obviously.)

The debate seems to have started anew with this post on The Hairpin, where the writer Kelly Conaboy makes a case for “red.” But this question about “read receipts” and pronunciation has come up before—kind of a lot, actually. The website Mic declared “reed” the winner in 2015, citing the pronunciation used by an Apple executive describing the feature. New York magazine argued for “red” around the same time—and pointed out that the question has been floating around since at least 2010.

On one hand, all this frivolous debate underscores the ouroborosian nature of web discourse in 2016. (Remember what I said before about quality?) Because who cares, really? How often do you even need to say “read receipts” aloud? On the other hand, the debate over how to pronounce something so seemingly inconsequential—and something so deeply rooted in the communications stylings of a text-based world—helps illustrate a larger shift in language and usage in the 21st century.

In 2016, people aren’t just increasingly communicating by text, but they’re often doing so in real-time—meaning they’re able to address ambiguities instantly. (Without Facebook, it would have been at least mildly harder to conduct an informal poll among friends about the pronunciation of “read receipt.”) The result isn’t necessarily more precise communication, and it certainly doesn’t produce unanimity, but it does illustrate how slippery everyday language is—and has always been.

One thing that’s sometimes characterized as being unique to the web is how quickly new slang can now travel to geographically disparate places. In reality, language’s geographic transmission has accelerated, but it’s a speeding-up process that’s been under way since long before the internet. Julie Coleman, author of The Life of Slang gives the examples of “ragtime”—which was first used in U.S. newspapers in 1896, but took 17 years to show up in British newspapers—compared with “jazz,” which appeared in the United States press in 1915 and was found in Britain papers just four years later. By the late 1990s, new words were transmitted from the U.S. to the U.K. in a matter of months. “More recently, because of social media, words are moving around the world almost instantaneously,” she said in a YouTube video. “It’s not necessarily that language is changing more quickly, but the transmission technologies have developed.”

At the same time, real-time communication offers the potential for linguistic debate on a scale and timeframe that wasn’t previously possible—which may have some effect on how different pronunciations fall in and out of favor. But, mostly, the internet confirms for us that even when you can’t settle the question of what usage is “proper,” you can be sure it will continue to change.