A guide to that flaming inbox

October 26, 2001

John Naughton downloads the first expert analysis of Netspeak.

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority."

Thus said Samuel Johnson in the preface to his great dictionary. He might have been talking about the task of analysing the language of the internet, the most radical transformation of our communications environment since the invention of print. In understanding what this development is doing to language, however, we have one advantage over the great doctor. We have David Crystal, who may or may not be a writer "of classical reputation", but is undoubtedly an acknowledged authority on the subject of language.

Given the relative longevity of the internet (which dates in its present form from 1983, but was manifest in the embryological form of the Arpanet as early as 1969), and its astonishing diffusion through western society since the invention of the worldwide web in 1990, one would have expected that its linguistic impacts would already have been the focus of a great deal of research. Not so, apparently. Crystal's bibliography lists a considerable corpus of empirical and anecdotal material but his book seems to be the first sustained treatment of an engrossing and important subject.

His general aim 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". Crystal seeks to determine whether "Netspeak" - his term for the language used in internet discourse - constitutes what he calls a "language variety", that is to say "a system of linguistic expression whose use is governed by situational factors". Or, to put it more crudely, if the internet is creating a global village, is Netspeak the dialect of this new habitation? He answers this question in the affirmative: Netspeak is a distinctive language variety, and one that is likely to have significant impacts on more traditional forms of linguistic expression.

Cynics might argue that it does not require the expertise of an authority on linguistics - or indeed a full-length book - to reach such a conclusion. All that is needed is a cursory inspection of one's email inbox. But that is too facile a view. In the first place, there is a need to transcend the anecdotalism that is the curse of internet studies. Too much conventional wisdom about the network is based on unsystematic extrapolation from individual or elite-group experience. And second, it is illuminating for those of us who are intensive but essentially unreflective users of the medium to see what our behaviour looks like when refracted through the prism of expert knowledge of linguistic behaviour. Most of us, for example, draw different conclusions from spelling, typographical and grammatical errors in email than those we would infer from the same defects in a type-written letter. Or we take for granted the fact that certain kinds of online exchanges are futile without ever bothering to probe the reasons why. Crystal, however, finds in these contradictions and blindspots much food for thought.

He begins with an initial discussion of the general characteristics of Netspeak - including the curious way it combines aspects of writing and speech, and how it is already seeping into non-internet environments and usages. "Download", for example, is now a widespread term, as are "wired", "online", "flaming" and "spam" (meaning something quite different from the homogenised meat product of Monty Python fame). Similarly, the character @, the prefix e- and "dotcom" have already become the stuff of tabloid cliche. Technophobes who once imagined they could live out their lives in peace without tangling with online communications now find themselves obliged to engage with them, either because of occupational necessity, or because they risk social exclusion by standing aloof. Even Homer (Simpson) has nodded, as in this exchange noted by Crystal: "Homer: What's an email? Lenny: It's a computer thing, like, er, an electric letter. Carl: Or a quiet phone call."

Crystal's inquiry is structured around four of the most common situations in which the Netspeak dialect is used: email, conferencing (both synchronous and asynchronous), communications in so-called "virtual worlds" and the web. His analysis of email is mind-numbingly thorough, covering headers, salutations, spelling, signatures and not excluding the strange fact that "emoticons" - those curious combinations of punctuation marks to convey emotions - only appeared when email took off. One reason that minimal punctuation, pervasive misspelling and so on do not appear to impede the comprehensibility of email messages is undoubtedly the fact that e-correspondents communicate with one another more frequently. There is thus less "catching up" to be done, because one can assume that the subject of the exchange is still on the recipient's mind. And even if longer delays intrude, email packages allow one effortlessly to append an aide-memoire. This also explains why most emails tend to be relatively short: Crystal finds that the average body length of his incoming messages is 10.9 lines. His replies averaged 6.56 lines, possibly reflecting the fact that he is an exceedingly busy man. He also finds that institutional email is invariably longer, even after discounting the fatuous, pseudo-legal disclaimers one now finds at the end of many corporate messages.

For linguists, Netspeak has some of the attractions that fruit flies hold for the evolutionary biologists. It offers them an opportunity to observe in real-time developments which would normally take place over centuries. And it leaves a visible trail of written evidence. And all on a massive scale. Although the transfer of webpages dominates the internet's traffic statistics, email overwhelmingly accounts for how most people interact with the network. The Pew internet surveys - probably the most reliable indicators we have of actual net usage - report that about 50 million Americans send at least one email message a day, which is far greater than the numbers who write a daily personal letter. More importantly, web browsing is mainly a passive activity, whereas email is creative and active. Electronic mail is thus a phenomenon of enormous significance, all the more extraordinary when one remembers how novel it is. Although the technology itself is quite venerable (it dates from 1971), electronic mail was the preserve of geeks and academics for over two decades until the web began its explosive growth and America Online brought millions of non-academic users online in the mid-1990s. What this means is that email as a medium has come from nowhere to a central part of our communications environment in less than a decade.

From a linguistic perspective, the interesting thing is how a particular kind of language use - formulated initially by an elite group of researchers who imbued it with their egalitarian and informal ethos - has survived the transition to mass medium with many of its initial characteristics intact. Managerial and social hierarchies have had to accommodate this new way of communicating, to accept its directness and immediacy and go with the linguistic flow. Within the John Lewis organisation, for example, it had always been the custom that letters and memoranda from the chief executive were printed in green ink. When the company switched over to email, this tradition was maintained, so that email messages from him are now rendered in green by partners' messaging software. But the days when executives had their secretaries print off their email and dictated replies are fast disappearing.

The most fascinating part of Crystal's book is his analysis of the language of synchronous and asynchronous conferencing. This is one of the most puzzling and problematic areas of online behaviour, because a technology that in principle ought to be perfect for discussion and group working often turns out to be totally unsatisfactory. Why is it, for example, that so many online debates rapidly lose the thread of the discussion and flare off on tangents? The answer, Crystal implies, has to do with our unwillingness to reflect deeply enough on the nature of the medium. Why, for example, do we persist with the assumption that computer conferencing is like conversation when in reality it is something quite different? Apart from obvious things such as the absence of visual and behavioural cues, there are distortions introduced by server lag (which leads to the contributions of some participants being delayed) or other technical factors that can result in answers appearing before some conferees have seen the relevant questions. There are the difficulties of arranging that everyone involved is able to have their conversational "turn" and of replicating other characteristics that facilitate face-to-face interaction. The point of all this is not that computer-mediated discussion is useless - quite the reverse - but that there are some settings in which it is effective and some for which other approaches are more appropriate.

The significance of Language and the Internet lies not so much in establishing that Netspeak is a distinctive and new language variety, but in the way it explores and documents the ways in which this new dialect has spread with such astonishing speed. And it provides a welcome reminder of an important truth about the internet. The network is not - despite all the fervent fantasies of multimedia corporations - just a new kind of television (with all that implies in terms of media "push" and passive consumption). It is first and foremost a communications medium that puts people in touch with one another in active and creative ways. We are, in the end, language animals, and the author of this book has just provided us with the first comprehensive survey of how we behave in our new environment.

John Naughton is senior lecturer in systems, Open University, and a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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