Linguistic Evolution

The digital revolution will be remembered for many things, but one of the most important societal developments to result from it is the continuing global rise in use of written language as opposed to spoken word. As Roger Fischer points out in A History of Writing, “an ever increasing number of people are spending more hours per day using written – that is keyboard – language rather than spoken language. We have redefined the very meaning of ‘writing'” (Quoted in Sutherland 2002) As more people communicate with their families, friends, co-workers and distant strangers through digital, textual means thanks to its ease of use and instantaneous delivery (among other reasons), we as a society are changing what writing means to us which in turn also affects how we communicate on the internet. And thanks to new CMC platforms such as Skype or FaceTime we are also enhancing the ways in which we communicate orally. It is abundantly clear that our modes of communication in the digital age are unstable hybrids, mashups of new and old forms of communication mixed with a mysterious cocktail of societal influences.

The design and evolution of netspeak is powered by many things, but above all a relentless desire for efficiency, brevity and informality. Language and literacy has historically been shaped by a wide range of social forces, such as the dissemination of religious dogma in the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, but in the digital age the driving social force is that of global economic competition; “as…digital technologies provide increasingly greater access to larger amounts of information, the efficient use of information skills in competitive workplace contexts becomes even more important” (Leu et. al., 2004). This has affected the public debate around netspeak in some complex ways, a topic which I go into greater detail on at a later point.

On the other hand, the informality of netspeak can appear enlarged as a result of the inherently casual and ephemeral nature of many of the most commonly used communication platforms—for example, old emails are routinely deleted, a regular occurrence in one of the relatively textually stable CMCs—and this is consequently often mistaken for the deterioration of language. This complaint is often voiced by educational institutions that claim to see texting acronyms (BTW, LOL) seeping into academic papers and daily speech, but I, along with Crystal, would like to think that this experimentation should be viewed positively. It is an indication of the creativity of both a language and its users who are adding new elements and eliminating redundant old ones to better suit their personal needs (Crystal 2005). In the two-minute video below, Crystal skillfully highlights the ways in which this creativity manifests itself in new linguistic styles. “Now,” he says, “there are these new styles to exploit…the language has become expressively richer as a result of the internet.”

Additionally, because so much of communication on the internet is done through the writing of text, we as humans and communicators have the rare opportunity to revisit the history of netspeak’s evolution as well as monitor its progression as the years go by. While it is true that countless examples will be lost due to the impermanence of digital copies, a staggering breadth of other linguistic records will exist for future studies. Electronic texts “transcend the traditional limitations of textual dissemination”; they are simultaneous (always available on an infinite number of machines), non-degradable when copied and have fluid, permeable boundaries (hyperlinks). Other limitations and possible consequences for language aside, these features in combination with various influences from written and spoken speech make netspeak a distinct and “genuine third medium”, a new major style of language (Crystal 2001).

In the next sections, I go into greater detail regarding what characteristics netspeak borrows from spoken and written language as well as how some of the mutations seen in netspeak are specific to certain CMCs.

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