Culture

Language in the Age of the Internet

by on May 4, 2015
 

An inquiry into how language is evolving and shaping our culture in the age of the internet, texting, cats and memes.

A force of unimaginable power – a Leviathan . . . is loose in our world, and we are as yet barely aware of it. It is already changing the way we communicate, work, trade, entertain and learn; soon it will transform the ways we live and earn. Perhaps one day it will even change the way we think. It will undermine established industries and create new ones. It challenges traditional notions of sovereignty, makes a mockery of national frontiers and continental barriers and ignores cultural sensitivities. It accelerates the rate of technological change to the point where even those who are supposed to be riding the crest of the wave begin to complain of ‘change fatigue’.

– John Naughton, A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet

Perhaps no other aspect of humanity in the modern context has undergone as demonstrable a change as a result of that ‘force of unimaginable power’ that John Naughton calls the internet, as our language.

Already an organic, dynamic and ever-evolving process at work constantly undergoing change, language is perhaps at the most interesting cross-roads in history. Language change has historically been a gradual and organic process, hardly noticeable when it occurred, but abundantly clear in retrospect. Before the rise of the machines and onset of the industrial march, before the emergence of the railroads and new modes of electronic communication, language as a characteristic in terms of dialect, idiom, and accent was restrained to particular subsets of people. Without the modern means of transport and communication, historical societies in the past lived and interacted in their day-today lives largely amongst their own kind.

This explains why a tiny island like England has upwards of hundreds of variations in speech and dialect today, whereas a vast country like the United States is relatively more cohesive and unified in terms of its accent and dialect. It is because Britain draws from centuries upon centuries of language change and evolution, with particular groups evolving their own linguistic traditions in the absence of mass transport which was a defining aspect in the United States’s history comparatively earlier than in the case of Britain’s.

The internet by its nature is largely a matter of record – transient in the moment, as nimble as a tweet or a Facebook status update: yet, for all its collective hyper-attention span, eternally permanent.

So if such a change was so dramatically evident with the advent of that technology, what does it look like in the wake of our hitherto biggest technological tectonic shift – the internet? Many a linguist would argue that perhaps this, more than any other time in history, is perhaps the most interesting time in the study of language. For the first time ever, through the advent of new technologies of the internet and portable devices, we are in a position to not only study the changes underway, but to actively record and observe them as they are taking place. The internet by its nature is largely a matter of record – transient in the moment, as nimble as a tweet or a Facebook status update: yet, for all its collective hyper-attention span, eternally permanent.

Every status update, every email, every forum thread and every Twitter timeline all neatly archived, every web page carefully preserved. It a collective public conversation amplified in space and time, stretching across borders and years.

It is small wonder, then, that these changes should demand our attention. Language is the fundamental and defining characteristic of humanity: it is what sets us apart from our collective evolutionary companions.

And it is true that this most important characteristic has gone, and is undergoing, changes. Much has been made of modern technological habits such as texting, tweeting, and the curious habits of some people incessantly sharing pictures of their lunch on social networks.

At the forefront are the millennials, as they have come to be called, who would blithely dispense with a few vowels rather than spell their words out in full.

Yet for all the exciting changes on the technological front, there is an undercurrent of anxiety over how these technologies are affecting our lives. Debates range far and wide on the evils of texting, ever-plummeting attention spans, lowered reading habits, and – most pressingly – sharp perceived decrease in the proficiency of English amongst the ‘younger’ generations. At the forefront are the millennials, as they have come to be called, who would blithely dispense with a few vowels rather than spell their words out in full.

Important questions confront us. Is language really under threat from the internet? Are we currently witnessing a mass upheaval in decreasing language proficiency? Should we be worried about the ‘millennial’? What does the changes in our use of language mean for our future?

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, made a singularly profound observation not long after the web came into existence. He said:

The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect—to help people work together—and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner.[1]

This assertion is markedly true and has been no more applicable than it is today. For all the persistent cynicism and vocal opposition of how the Internet is ‘making us stupid’, the Internet’s might and power is still resolutely in favour of continual growth and learning as a medium.

William Shakespeare, despite his sheer linguistic genius, would not be able to comprehend an iota of our techspeak. The meekest ‘LOL’ would completely befuddle him.

Language does not live in a vacuum. It is many-headed, often times inscrutable even to its own speakers. And yet, as language evolves, we evolve with it. It is no exaggeration to say that William Shakespeare, despite his sheer linguistic genius, would not be able to comprehend an iota of our techspeak. The meekest ‘LOL’ or ‘R u alr8?’ would completely befuddle him. However, at the same time, it is also true that most of us would be befuddled by English works form the 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer’s beloved Canterbury Tales, as it was written in its original text, reads: ‘I wolde have toold yow fully the manere, how wonnen was the regne of Femenye’.

It is also worthwhile to note that every major technology in history has been met with paranoia and anxiety repeatedly. In the fifteenth century, the Church considered Gutenberg’s printing press as an invention of Satan. This sentiment of alarm and dire prophecy was echoed successively, in one form or another, throughout the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the television, the computer, and, presently, the internet. However, if the internet has changed our mode of communication, it has also given us access to newer avenues of expression.

Communication on the internet exists in a peculiar, dual-way transitory period. For all the abundance of Youtube videos, Vines, and Instagram photographs, reading and writing are still the primary mode of interaction via the web.

There are, however, interesting changes underfoot. Emoticons, or smiley faces, are now part of Internet legend: taken for granted as a now integral part of online communication. However, emoticons are no longer the only form of non-verbal communication online. The humble smiley face has, in recent times, seen stiff competition from the mass adaptation and cultural proliferation of the GIF: the moving image format which has come to replace standard sentences and words on web pages and instant messengers alike. Sites like Buzzfeed and Tumblr are perhaps most notorious for their use of GIFs replacing words in actual articles – or, as they are now called, ‘listicles’.

It is easy to dismiss Buzzfeed and its ilk as frivolous and unliterary haunts on the web. But even giants like The New York Times have acknowledged the sheer force of Buzzfeed and its companion sites. An internal innovation report by the New York Times states that it takes Buzzfeed as a rival very seriously, and seeks to emulate the viral success that so desperately eludes the Times.

Is The Internet Making Us Stupid?

Another interesting aspect of online communication is the rise of the memes. Originally coined by the biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, the word meme signified the cultural equivalent of the gene: a self-propagating and mass- produced trait. Memes on the internet now have come to denote jokes, funny videos and pictures of cats. It is not uncustomary for young people to communicate entirely in memes, in the form of captions imposed over pictures through apps or online generators.

The internet is a place where 160-charaacter Tweets and 11,000 word essays can simultaneously co-exist.

For those who would look upon these facts as ammunition for the ‘Internet is making us stupid’ argument, they need only take a closer look. One of the most fascinating aspects of the internet’s dual-personality nature is that if cats and memes are ruling the roost, so are serious journalism and long-form stories. The internet is a place where 160-charaacter Tweets and 11,000 word essays can simultaneously co-exist.

One need only look towards the astounding popularity and viral growth of sites like The Verge, Longform, Medium, Vox, and many others. These sites have demonstrated that long-form reading is very much still alive and sought-after on the web, despite what those bleak reports on our plummeting attention spans might suggest.

This is facilitated more by the proliferation of mobile devices. Portable devices such as phones, e-readers and tablets facilitate reading much more than computer screens do. All this has only demonstrated what was true decades ago. The medium is every bit the message as much as it ever was.

The Arrival of Netspeak

Perhaps no other researcher has done more for internet linguistic study than David Crystal.In his book, Internet Linguistics Dr. Crystal begins by seeking to tackle the linguistics critics of the Internet. He writes: ‘The prophets of doom have been out in force, attributing every contemporary linguistic worry to the new technology, and predicting the disappearance of languages and a decline in spoken and written standards. When we investigate the worries, we invariably find they are based on myths.’ [2]

These myths are further explored in his book, ‘Language and the Internet’. The bulk of Crystal’s thesis centers around the concept of Netspeak. Crystal singles out Netspeak as a new mode of communication in itself, comprised of both writing and speech, even in the form of written text on the internet. He argues that ‘As a name, Netspeak is succinct, and functional enough, as long as we remember that ‘speak’ here involves writing as well as talking, and that any ‘speak’ suffix also has a receptive element, including ’listening and reading’. The first of these points hardly seems worth the reminder, given that the Internet is so clearly a predominantly written medium, and yet…the question of how speech is related to writing is at the heart of the matter. But the second point is sometimes ignored, so its acknowledgement is salutary.’ [3]

In spite of his stress on the importance of speech as an integral aspect of communication on the internet, Crystal is quick to acknowledge its limitations, stating:

The fact of the matter is that even the fastest typist comes nowhere near the spontaneity and speed of speech, which in conversation routinely runs at 5 or 6 syllables a second. Even apparently spontaneous Internet messages can involve elements of preplanning, pausing to think while writing, and mental checking before sending, which are simply not options in most everyday conversation. […]

Studies of e-mail and chatgroup interactions have shown that they generally lack the very features of spoken language which indicate most spontaneity – notably, the use of reaction signals (‘mhm, uh-huh, yeah’) and comment clauses (‘you know, you see, mind you’). Indeed, some writers have identified the lack of these features as one of the reasons why so many Internet interactions are misperceived as abrupt, cold, distant, or antagonistic.[4]

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

Crystal makes an important distinction of language on the ‘internet subculture’. He argues that the internet as a medium encourages the concept of ‘finding identity’: in other words, sub-cultures or communities that self-identify with a particular set of traits, lifestyles and habits and seek out likeminded people with whom they have these traits in common.

These subcultures, although far-ranging and different amongst themselves, are all defined by a single overarching characteristic: language. Every sub-culture or identity has its own set of jargon, its own special language quirks. In the absence of social cues, such as in a real-world club or group, on the internet groups of people collate through language.

One only look at the emergence of Reddit, 4Chan, Tumblr and countless others, each with their own unique set of vocabulary. This can range from the colorfully dismissive (‘newfag’: someone new on 4Chan) to inscrutable (‘What is air?’: Tumblr’s insider call to identify fellow Tumblr users).

He concludes by saying that the internet is not so much a separate, uniform medium of communication as it is a collection of distinct speech habits and characteristics, much like the Scots or Liverpuddlians. Crystal ends on an unwaveringly optimistic note:

What is truly remarkable is that so many people have learned so quickly to adapt their language to meet the demands of the new situations, and to exploit the potential of the new medium so creatively to form new areas of expression. It has all happened within a few decades. The human linguistic faculty seems to be in good shape, I conclude. The arrival of Netspeak is showing us homo loquens at its best.’ [5]

Conclusion

The internet is the very opposite of a vacuum: its billion page strong network is fortified by the social glue that holds it together. And across websites, messenger apps, social networks, memes and videos: the primary mode of interaction is always, invariably, language. Whether in the form of pithy 160 character bite-sized tweets, or Youtube comments, or Reddit threads, or forum groups – our language is the single great unifier.

This is perhaps even more remarkable given the fact that for international speakers, the internet truly is a blessing. Language learning has taken off not only in the form of the English language, but also the other way around. English speakers, through apps and websites like DuoLingo and Live Mocha, have the means, resources and the opportunity, now more than ever to learn and dip into cultures – anything from Portuguese to Hindi to Japanese. And non-English speakers are free to do the same.

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell forewarned:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. [6]

The essay was written in 1946 – and if Orwell though that English was ‘full of bad habits’ then, he would be scandalized to hear our English now. Orwell asserts that English becomes ‘ugly and inaccurate’, but I would humbly like to argue to the contrary. English is in a process of perpetual transformation, like it was five hundred years ago, or one thousand years ago, before the French, before the Norman conquest of England, before the Vikings and before anybody could possible remember.

Much like the Internet itself, our language is flexible, open, and adaptive. Therein lies its invincibility, and therein lies its great beauty.


References

[1] Berners-Lee, Tim (2000), Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web .
[2] Crystal, David (2011), Internet Linguistics.
[3], [4], [5] Crystal, David (2006), Language and The Internet (2nd ed.).
[6] Orwell, George (1946), Politics and the English Language.

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