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Will the English-dominated Internet
spell the end of other tongues?
Quite e-vil: the mobile phone whisperers
A major risk for humanity
These quotations illustrate widely held anxieties about the effect of the Internet on language and languages. The first is the subheading of a magazine article on millennial issues.1 The second is the headline of an article on the rise of new forms of impoliteness in communication among people using the short messaging service on their mobile phones.2 The third is a remark from the President of France, Jacques Chirac, commenting on the impact of the Internet on language, and especially on French.3 My collection of press clippings has dozens more in similar vein, all with a focus on language. The authors are always ready to acknowledge the immense technological achievement, communicative power, and social potential of the Internet; but within a few lines their tone changes, as they express their concerns. It is a distinctive genre of worry. But unlike sociologists, political commentators, economists, and others who draw attention to the dangers of the Internet with respect to such matters as pornography, intellectual property rights, privacy, security, libel,and crime, these authors are worried primarily about linguistic issues. For them, it is language in general, and individual languages in particular, which are going to end up as Internet casualties, and their specific questions raise a profusion of spectres. Do the relaxed standards of e-mails augur the end of literacy and spelling as we know it? Will the Internet herald a new era of technobabble? Will linguistic creativity and flexibility be lost as globalization imposes sameness?
There is of course nothing new about fears accompanying the emergence of a new communications technology. In the fifteenth century, the arrival of printing was widely perceived by the Church as an invention of Satan, the hierarchy fearing that the dissemination of uncensored ideas would lead to a breakdown of social order and put innumerable souls at risk of damnation. Steps were quickly taken to limit its potentially evil effects. Within half a century of Gutenberg’s first Bible (1455), Frankfurt had established a state censorship office to suppress unorthodox biblical translations and tracts (1486), and soon after, Pope Alexander VI extended censorship to secular books (1501). Around 400 years later, similar concerns about censorship and control were widespread when society began to cope with the political consequences of the arrival of the telegraph, the telephone, and broadcasting technology. The telegraph would destroy the family and promote crime.4 The telephone would undermine society. Broadcasting would be the voice of propaganda. In each case, the anxiety generated specifically linguistic controversy. Printing enabled vernacular translations of the Bible to be placed before thousands, adding fuel to an argument about the use of local languages in religious settings which continues to resonate today. And when broadcasting enabled selected voices to be heard by millions, there was an immediate debate over which norms to use as correct pronunciation, how to achieve clarity and intelligibility, and whether to permit local accents and dialects, which remains as lively a debate in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth.
The Internet is an association of computer networks with common standards which enable messages to be sent from any registered computer (or host) on one network to any host on any other. It developed in the 1960s in the USA as an experimental network which quickly grew to include military, federal, regional, university, business, and personal users. It is now the world’s largest computer network, with over 300 million hosts connected by the year 2005, providing an increasing range of services and enabling unprecedented numbers of people to be in touch with each other through electronic mail (e-mail), discussion groups, and the provision of digital ‘pages’ on any topic. Functional information, such as electronic shopping, business data, advertisements, and bulletins, can be found alongside creative works, such as poems and scripts, with the availability of movies, TV programmes, and other kinds of entertainment steadily growing. Some commentators have likened the Internet to an amalgam of television, telephone, and conventional publishing, and the term cyberspace has been coined to capture the notion of a world of information present or possible in digital form (the information superhighway). The potential of the Internet is currently limited by relatively slow data-transmission speeds, and by the problems of management and retrieval posed by the existence of such a vast amount of information (see chapter ); but there is no denying the unprecedented scale and significance of the Net, as a global medium. The extra significance is even reflected in the spelling, in languages which use capital letters: this is the first such technology to be conventionally identified with an initial capital. We do not give typographical enhancement to such developments as ‘Printing’, ‘Publishing’, ‘Broadcasting’, ‘Radio’, or ‘Television’, but we do write ‘Internet’ and ‘Net’.5
What is it like to be a regular citizen of the Internet, a netizen? Those who already spend appreciable amounts of time online need only self-reflect; for those who do not, the self-descriptions of a ‘day in a netizen’s life’ are informative. Here is Shawn Wilbur’s, as he describes what a ‘virtual community’ means to him:
For me it is the work of a few hours a day, carved up into minutes and carried on from before dawn until long after dark. I venture out onto the Net when I wake in the night, while coffee water boils, or bath water runs, between manuscript sections or student appointments. Or I keep a network connection open in the background while I do other work. Once or twice a day, I log on for longer periods of time, mostly to engage in more demanding realtime communication, but I find that is not enough. My friends and colleagues express similar needs for frequent connection, either in conversation or through the covetous looks they cast at occupied terminals in the office. Virtual community is this work, this immersion, and also the connections it represents. Sometimes it is realtime communication. More often it is asynchronous and mostly solitary, a sort of textual flirtation that only occasionally aims at any direct confrontation of voices or bodies.sup>6
And there are now several sites which will advise you of the symptoms to look out for if you want to know whether you are Internet-driven. Here is a short selection from various pages headed ‘addicted to the Internet’:
You wake up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom and stop to check your e-mail on the way back to bed.
You sign off and your screen says you were on for 3 days and 45 minutes.
You placed the refrigerator beside your computer.
You say ‘scroll up’ when someone asks what it was you said.
All of your friends have an @ in their names.
You tell the cab driver you live at
You check your mail. It says ‘no new messages’. So you check it again.
Your phone bill comes to your doorstep in a box.
It is not the aim of this book to reflect on the consequences for individuals or for society of lives that are lived largely in cyberspace. My aim is much more modest: it is to explore the ways in which the nature of the electronic medium as such, along with the Internet’s global scale and intensity of use, is having an effect on language in general, and on individual languages in particular. It seems likely that these effects will be as pervasive and momentous as in the case of the previous communication technologies, mentioned above, which gave language printed and broadcast dimensions that generated many new distinctive varieties and usages, from the telegrammatic graphic prominence of newspaper headlines to the hyperverbal sonic prominence of sports commentaries.
The electronic medium, to begin with, presents us with a channel which facilitates and constrains our ability to communicate in ways that are fundamentally different from those found in other semiotic situations. Many of the expectations and practices which we associate with spoken and written language, as we shall see (chapter 2), no longer obtain. The first task is therefore to investigate the linguistic properties of the so-called ‘electronic revolution’, and to take a view on whether the way in which we use language on the Internet is becoming so different from our previous linguistic behaviour that it might genuinely be described as revolutionary.
The linguistic consequences of evolving a medium in which the whole world participates – at least in principle, once their countries’ infrastructure and internal economy allow them to gain access – are also bound to be far-reaching. We must not overstate the global nature of the Internet: it is still largely in the hands of the better-off citizens of the developed countries. But it is the principle which matters. What happens, linguistically, when the members of the human race use a technology enabling any of them to be in routine contact with anyone else? There has been much talk of the notion of a ‘global village’, which is at first sight a persuasive metaphor. Yet such a concept raises all kinds of linguistic questions. A village is a close-knit community, traditionally identified by a local dialect or language which distinguishes its members from those elsewhere: ‘That’s not how we say things round here.’ If there is to be a genuine global village,7 then we need to ask ‘What is its dialect?’, ‘What are the shared features of language which give the world community of users their sense of identity?’ And, if we cannot discern any unifying dialect or language, or a trend towards such a unity, we need to ask ourselves if this ‘global village’ is anything more than a media fiction. Similar questions might be asked of related notions, such as ‘digital citizens’, ‘the virtual community’, and the ‘Net generation’. The linguistic perspective is a critical part of this debate. As Derek Foster puts it, reflecting on the notion of a virtual community, ‘the fullest understanding of the term is gained by grounding it in the communicative act itself’.8 So the second task is to investigate whether the Internet is emerging as a homogenous linguistic medium, whether it is a collection of distinct dialects, reflecting the different backgrounds, needs, purposes, and attitudes of its users, or whether it is an aggregation of trends and idiosyncratic usages which as yet defy classification.
The distinctive features of a language variety are of several kinds. Many stylistic approaches recognize five main types, for written language:11
‘Whatever else Internet culture may be, it is still largely a text-based affair.’12 Spoken language currently has only a limited presence on the Internet, through the use of sound clips, songs, films, and video; but the use of speech will undoubtedly grow as technology develops, and it will not be long before we see the routine use of interactive voice (and video) dialogues, speech synthesis to provide a spoken representation of what is on a screen or to give vocal support to a graphic presentation, and automatic speech recognition to enable users to interact verbally with sites (see further, chapter ). In addition to the above five types, therefore, we need to recognize two more:
Grammatical, lexical, and discourse features of course play a distinctive role in all spoken varieties of a language, as they do in the written. A television commentary is not distinctive solely in its pronunciation, but in its use of grammar, vocabulary, and general organization as well.
So the initial question for the person interested in Internet linguistics to ask is: is the Net a homogenous language-using electronic situation, likely to generate a single variety of language, defined using such variables as those listed above? Will all users of the Internet present themselves, through their messages, contributions, and pages, with the same kind of graphic, orthographic, grammatical, lexical, and discourse features? To answer these questions we need first to establish how many different situations the Internet contains. We then need to describe the salient linguistic features of each situation, and to identify variations in the way they are used. This will help us talk more precisely about the strategies that people employ and the linguistic attitudes they hold, and thus enable us to begin evaluating their beliefs and concerns about Internet language. Some of these situations are easy to identify, because they have been around a relatively long time and have begun to settle down. Some are still in their infancy, with their situational status totally bound up with emerging technology, and therefore subject to rapid change: an example is the linking of the Internet to mobile phone technology, where the small screen size immediately motivated a fresh range of linguistic expression (see p. 262). Given the speed of technological change, doubtless new situational variables will emerge which will make any attempt at classification quickly outdated. But, as of the beginning of 2006, it is possible to identify seven broad Internet-using situations which are sufficiently different to mean that the language they contain is likely to be significantly distinctive. Two of these were hardly in evidence when the first edition of this book was being written. A lot can happen in five years.