Internet Linguistics — Q&A with David Crystal
David Crystal is a world-renowned linguist. He’s the author of over 100 books, and an advocate of what he calls “Internet Linguistics” — an approach to understanding how we use language online. Nora Young interviewed David for Spark 220. This Q&A is a lightly edited version of that interview.
You’ve written about how texting and tweeting are good things for language. Why is that?
Whenever new technology comes along people always get worried about it, as far as language is concerned. It’s not just with the Internet. When telephones arrived in the 19th century, people panicked because they thought it was going to destroy language. Then broadcasting comes along in the 1920s and people panicked because they think everybody’s going to be brainwashed.
Same with the Internet. People panicked because they thought the Internet was going to do devastating things to language.
In each particular case, what you see is an expansion of the expressive richness of language. In other words, new ways of talking and communicating come along. The Internet has given us 10 or 15 new styles of communication. Long messages like blogging, and then short messages like texting and tweeting. I see it all as part of an expanding array of linguistic possibilities.
One of the most intriguing ideas in Internet Linguistics is that online communication is actually more like speaking than writing. This seems counterintuitive.
It’s a real problem, because we haven’t got the right terminology. Traditionally, we’re so used to talking about speech on the one hand, writing on the other. Then along comes a technology which is essentially through the fingers — and yet we talk about “chat rooms” and we talk about having an email “conversation,” and so on.
It’s been a very uncertain era. But we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The big thing that’s going to happen over the next 10 years is that the Internet is going to become increasingly audio, in all sorts of different ways. The balance is going to change, and I think we’re going to see language on the Internet become increasingly conversational, and spoken, as a result.
In Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, which you published back in 2008, you were responding in part to the concerns that students were using text-speak abbreviation in their essays. What did your research discover about the way students wrote?
There were all sorts of myths surrounding text messaging when it came in in the early 2000s in the UK. The myth was that young people are filling their text messages with abbreviations, that they’re inventing them to keep adults out of their lives, that they can’t spell, that they’re putting them into their homework, and all this.
As the research built up, it showed conclusively that none of these things were happening, that in the average text message only about 10 percent of the words are abbreviated, that most of the abbreviations in texting are ancient — things like LOL, laughing out loud, that’s new — but something like “C” for “see” and “U” for “you” and all of those, they go back hundreds of years in English.
Queen Victoria used to play rebus games with her kids, and Lewis Carroll used to play games like this, where you’d put up a little puzzle where all the words were shortened in that sort of way.
A famous example from Queen Victoria’s time was in a puzzle magazine where this is what you saw: you saw a number two, and then you saw a little buzzy bee, and then you saw the thing you drive a rowing boat with, and then you see a piece of string tied up, and so on. You have to decode it.
"To be or not to be?"
Yeah, it’s great fun and it’s all going on 100 years or more before texting was ever invented. Lots of these things go back a long way.
Since you wrote your book Txtng, a lot’s happened; Twitter and smartphones have become mainstream. And of course it’s not just the kids who use these kind of technologies. How have people’s perceptions of online language changed? Do we still have that kind of cultural anxiety, or has that abated?
It’s certainly abated in this country, but it’s part of the novelty of the medium. As soon as a new medium comes along and people start using it, there is this moral panic that associates with it, really.
That seems to have died away an awful lot now, in the UK. I think I notice it still quite strongly in the United States; I don’t know what it feels like in your part of the world.
The panic has deteriorated mainly because people have become more comfortable with it. People realize that there’s a time and a place for everything. They realize that there are different styles, and they see that the original fear — that language was going to alter fundamentally because of these novelties — just hasn’t happened.
It’s taken about 10 years, but they realize, actually, that 99.9 percent of all the language around the world is carrying on just in the same way as it was before the Internet came along in the first place. It’s just that the Internet has expanded the range of opportunities for people, so that if they choose to go on the Internet then they’ll do things they never did before. But the old language stays as strong as it ever was.
Online we have many different types of ways of communicating. We’ve got blogging, we’ve got group chat, we’ve got social networking, we’ve got message boards. Is it like a country with different dialects, where I speak Twitter and you speak Facebook? Or are there things that we can say about all online communication?
My view at the moment, after a lot of research has been done now, is that it’s a group of dialects. It’s very difficult to find even one or two criteria that you will find in every Internet situation, and the reason is that the technology constrains language in individual ways.
You have to respect what the technologists are doing here. In other words, you can’t assume that just because a usage is now, it will be the same in a year or so’s time.
A good example of this is Twitter. Twitter comes along in 2006, and the prompt was, “What are you doing?” so people responded by saying what they were doing. That means lots of first-person pronouns; “I am doing this,” “We are doing this,” lots of present tenses, “are doing,” and that was more or less it.
In November 2009 Twitter changed its prompt. Now we get, “What’s happening?” As soon as you do that, everything changes.
Now it’s about what’s going on so it’s third-person pronouns; “This is happening,” “He’s doing,” “She’s doing.” It’s past tense; “This has just happened.” It’s future; “This is about to happen.”
Have the conventions that people use online had any effect on the way people speak or write offline?
Not that I’ve seen. This is another myth.
Occasionally you get the odd thing that transfers. LOL is a good example. Young people often say, “Hey, LOL,” or something like that to each other, and it’s very cool. But there are not very many examples like that.
It’s a bit too soon to say, though. The whole business has been around, for most of us, less than 20 years, which is an eye-blink when it comes to language change. It could be that some of these new techniques are giving us different preferences, making us perhaps speak in a more succinct way. Maybe even, as some people have argued, altering our attention spans and things of that kind.
Personally, I think a lot of the claims have been a bit premature. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our thinking processes have been altered by the Internet, but it could be that in the long term something like that does happen.
Do you see the Internet as a particularly playful or experimental place for the use of language, because it’s new?
It’s certainly experimental. Playful? Yes, but all language has a playful dimension. In everyday speech, we play all the time. Everybody plays with language; makes jokes, puns, puts on silly voices, and things of that kind. But most of that never gets recorded anywhere.
In the written form, you don’t see that kind of language play very often, except occasionally when authors write clever things and so on, because the written language was never designed for that sort of thing.
But on the Internet, which is predominantly written at the moment, that kind of playfulness really comes to the fore, and you see it all over the place. I think it’s one of the most fascinating developments on the Internet, to see that kind of thing happening.
A good example is the way in which people are prepared to create new words. This is always one of the most interesting forms of playful language. We invent a new word because it doesn’t exist, and hope that everybody else will use it.
Traditionally, these words would never get into the dictionary, or never be seen in written form, because it’s just an invention by a single person. But on the Internet, take something like the Urban Dictionary… you find millions of new words. I really mean millions. We’re talking about extraordinary diversity of playful uses of language, most of which will last a day or so and then disappear forever, but some of those things will stay for a long time.
Whether they stay or disappear, the point is what you’re seeing there is an extraordinary linguistic creativity on the part of the people who use it.
One thing I’ve been wondering about Internet culture is the way people will often use wordplay to play at being ignorant, especially about the technology itself, as a way of suggesting that they’re actually quite technologically sophisticated. People will say “intertubes” instead of “Internet,” or “interweb” instead of “the web,” or they’ll deliberately spell “the” as “teh.” It’s kind of like a code, in a way. Do you have any sense of what’s going on there?
It’s been there from the very beginning. It was felt to be a very cool piece of developing rapport. There was a study in the 1990s where, in a particular chat group, somebody mistyped the word “computer” as “comptuer” and everybody thought this was fantastic, so everybody in the chat room now uses “comptuer” as the norm for that chat room.
Along comes a newbie into the chat room, who spells “computer” in the right way, and he’s blamed for spelling it wrong. This illustrates a very important point and that is that a group needs to bond. It needs to form its identity and it does this, online especially but generally too, through language.
There’s an old little jingle. “The chief use of slang is to show that you’re one of the gang.”
What that means is that every social group has its own linguistic bonding mechanism. If there’s a group of lawyers, they have their own slang. If there’s a group of doctors, they have their own slang, and so on. On Facebook, they will have their own slang. On YouTube, and so on.
Whatever the concept is, there will be some way in which people who feel they need to belong will use a form of language that outsiders do not use.
One of the ways in which you can immediately show that you’re belonging to a particular group is by deviating from the norm. It’s not the standard language, so you can be sure that you’ve immediately got an identity marker that is going to make your group feel rather special.
David Crystal is a linguist and author. You can hear Nora Young’s full interview with him at cbc.ca/spark/
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