This is the kind of serious non-fiction book I was talking about last week (http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib123.html), that might not survive because a younger generation raised on the Internet has never learned the skill of reading lengthy, discursive prose -- and for reasons aptly illustrated by Crystal's analysis of how language is used on the Internet.
It's a book he wrote in order to answer the questions people were asking him, about how language would be affected by the net, like whether the English-dominated net would kill off other languages, whether net language was simply written speech, and whether it would make formal writing and correct spelling curious, obsolete concepts? To find out, Crystal immersed himself in MUDs, MOOs and chat groups, studied the language patterns of web sites, and critically examined his own extensive files of e-mail.
He found that, however conversational the tone of the language of the net, it still remains very much a hybrid of written and oral language, that has to make many linguistic adaptations because of the sheer physical obstacles and unclarities imposed by typing speed and troublesome net connections, especially in chat rooms where several people may be speaking simultaneously.
When you're slow to respond, after all, it leaves other people wondering whether you're simply thinking or typing, or you have been offended, or have left the chatroom. Sometimes, by the time you DO get your response in, the conversation has moved on.
Trying to create order in this kind of cacaphony of voices requires some special tricks not common to either written or spoken language, like the use of very brief sentences and abbreviations to keep up with the flow [Where RU?], the dropping of function words [I fine], and the use of emoticons to substitute for intonation and gesture. Complex sentences vanish. In virtual worlds, players' conversation tends to be brief while still establishing player name and action [Langman says "hello." Prof says "good day."] The interesting thing is the way chaos tends to self-organize. Crystal says:
If you had said to me a few years ago that it was possible to have a successful conversation while disregarding the standard conventions of turn-taking, logical sequence, time-ordering and the like, I would have been totally dismissive. But the evidence is clear: millions are doing just that.
A web page, on the other hand, allows lengthy, formal discursive writing, but the physiology and psychology of reading on a screen does not encourage it. As a consequence, paragraphs, sentences, and entire presentations tend to be short (for instance, by deliberately keeping ExLibris short enough to fit within the table frame, and short enough to e-mail, I avoid straining the attention and patience of librarians who tell me they have way too much to read).
Web page paragraphs are surrounded by plenty of blank space, while power-point style bullets and headers clarify organization for the reader and cater to a grazing style of reading. Another distinction is that formal written text tends to be top-down: I talk, you listen. Because net users want and expect to talk back, writers on the net tend to invite comment and discussion.
As for the issue of language domination, Crystal says that time is resolving that problem; as more countries are coming online, there is a genuine possibility that English will be a minority language on the net, albeit a numerically powerful one. Indeed, he thinks the web may serve to rescue some languages in danger of extinction, because it is an easy and cheap place to store any language's grammar and literary texts.
Crystal pulls off quite a feat here in speaking to a dual audience: to linguists who may not know much about the internet, and to internet enthusiasts who may not know much about linguistics. And while he occasionally assumes we know either less or more than we really do, in most cases he manages to enlighten, and entertain, both groups. It's a very intriguing book.
* * * * *
The irony of the Information Age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.
John Lawton, in an address to the American Association of Broadcast Journalists. 1995
* * * * *
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2001.
[Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]