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Language and the Internet
By David Crystal
Cambridge University Press
272 pgs. US$19.95

How the Internet is changing language ... imho

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 11, 2002

Language and the InternetAs David Crystal points out, a surprising lack of research as been done on the effect of the Internet on language and how we are taking to the new medium linguistically. It's taken as a matter of faith that whatever is happening, it's not good. Crystal contends, however, that the Internet is increasing the richness of language and indeed humanity stands at the "brink of the biggest language revolution ever."

Crystal has an unenviable task in attempting to prove that contention given that Language and the Internet is the first serious attempt to study the field, and even Crystal admits that the book gives at best a "blurred snapshot" of what's happening given the ever changing face of the Internet. His snapshot includes a study of e-mail, synchronous and asynchronous chat groups, virtual words like MUD and MOO and the World Wide Web itself. Although he occasionally becomes mired in the minutiae of the subculture he's studying, to the point of annoyingly referring to language on the Internet as "netspeak," Crystal manages an interesting look at what is controversial subject.

Even a casual study of the field shows that the experts often disagree on what exactly is happening to language in our digital age. Is the advent of e-mail an opportunity for people to once again discover the pleasure of a well-written letter, or is merely a conveyance for spam and sloppily written notes to friends and co-workers? Are the billion web pages the sign of a culture becoming newly literate, or an opportunity for anyone with a computer to share their most banal thoughts with the world? Is chat just an avenue for cybersex, or does it introduce a new paradigm for conversation?

Judging by Crystal's survey of the five computer mediated ways of expressing ourselves, it's all of the above and more. Netizens have adapted remarkably to the limitations imposed by the various technologies available to them, but as Crystal points out, even the savviest user can occasionally have difficulty expressing what they mean to someone else when they are separated by a pair of personal computers. Yet despite that many of us forget a salient point Crystal makes, "[l]anguage is the heart of the Internet, for Net activity is interactivity," that the Internet wasn't just designed to tie computers together, but people as well.

"What is truly remarkable is that so many people have learned so quickly to adapt their language to meet the new demands of the new situations, and to exploit the potential of the new medium so creatively to form new areas of expression," he writes. "It has all happened within a few decades."

Whether Crystal has managed to prove that computer mediated language is a new fourth medium (spoken, written and signed are the traditional three recognized), which is a "development of millennial significance," as he asserts, is debatable. After all, many aspects of the Internet have promised to change our lives in the most profound way. The current limitations of this new medium, limitations that Crystal himself repeatedly acknowledges, mirror those described in the 1970s when citizen band radio was all the rage, though it would be facetious to compare the monumental possibilities of the Internet to the inherent faddishness of CB radio.

Nonetheless, Crystal's entry into the field of Internet linguistics is a fascinating look at the way we have used technology to shape our language, and how a technology itself forces us to change our language. As the Internet grows and the technology available becomes more user friendly and more capable, it will be interesting to see how netspeak grows along with it, perhaps rivaling one day the complexity of the simple conversation human beings have enjoyed for millennia.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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