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Language and the Internet
  1. M Williams

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    Crystal D. (Pp 272; £13.95, $19.95) 2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0 521 80212 1 (hardback)

    Do you txt? Have you ever used a smiley :) ? Do you know what wtfigo means? Do you wince—even just a little—at the greengrocer's cavalier use of the apostrophe? If you answered yes to these questions, then you should read this book. If you answered no to any of them, then you need to read this book, because something is happening to the English language, and you need to know what it is. David Crystal is a noted linguist who, for the first time, has attempted to analyse the language of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Crystal has given this form of language the Orwellian name Netspeak, and has analysed its use in e-mails, in chat groups, in virtual worlds, and on the Web. He has sought to determine whether or not Netspeak has the attributes of a distinct language, but concludes that while it is a genuine third medium, distinct from speech and writing, it is more a dialect of English than anything else.

    This conclusion is not arrived at via a totally dry linguistic analysis. Crystal does provide an interesting discussion on the “prescriptive” approach to language (typified by the view that a split infinitive represents the end of civilisation as we know it) versus the “descriptive” liberal approach, which views widely used deviations from the “norm” as evidence of a healthy evolution and growth of a language. Crystal clearly sets himself in the latter camp as far as “Netspeak” is concerned, although he does make the point that a very widely used word processing software package automatically warns, and potentially stifles individualism in, authors when they stray outside what could be considered arbitrary grammatical rules. (Just try your spell check routine.)

    Although there is a short discussion of the phenomenal rise in mobile telephone use and the implications for the language through the increasing use of text messages, the book was finished before perhaps the full significance of this development could be analysed and assessed. But this is inevitable in any book which deals with digital technology—as the author himself points out, such an exercise will inevitably be out of date in some respect before it is published. A second edition could be expected to address this issue in more depth.

    There is a fascinating section on the question of whether or not the globalisation of the Internet and World Wide Web will lead to a worldwide domination of English as the lingua franca—perhaps that should be lingua electronica—of the Internet. I have to declare an interest, coming from the Celtic fringe, but this is not the first time in history that the prospect of a hegemony of English has been in prospect. Crystal argues that far from it, the Internet provides an even greater opportunity for lesser used languages to prosper and thrive. Time will tell.

    Crystal has written a stimulating book, and he has done this largely in layman's terms, although there are occasional lapses into phrases like “hyperverbal sonic prominence”, and for a linguist to start a sentence with “Other factors than ...” jars more than a little. However, if you have an interest in language and use a computer, you should read this book. Using the extensive tables of acronyms for useful (and occasionally rude) phrases you can also impress your friends and e-correspondents; you could even construct sentences without the use of a single “proper” English word if you tried. Cul8r.

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