Netspeak versus Speech

Netspeak shares many of the crucial characteristics of speech that make it a vital alternative to traditional written language. Both netspeak and speech are more playful and loosely structured, features which are only possible because both forms of communication are, with the exception of web pages and blogs, spontaneous and time-bound. And even though chatrooms, instant messaging and email all fall within these categories, the temporal rhythm for each is quite different in fundamental ways. Additionally, none of these communicative methods are face to face or immediately revisable like speech is, and all of these technological limitations have helped to shape the ways that netspeak evolves within each CMC platform. Below, you can find a helpful chart from David Crystal’s Language and the Internet which neatly illustrates which criteria for spoken language persist within the different styles of netspeak (Crystal 2001).

Criteria for Netspeak versus Speech. Image courtesy of David Crystal (via email).

As any of us who have talked in a chatroom or conversed with a friend entirely though instant messaging know, the rhythm of netspeak is far different from that of a face to face conversation. In a chatroom for example, the likes of which can be found in popular games such as World of Warcraft or through platforms such as Yahoo Messenger, different conversations between distinct groups of people can temporally overlap with each user having an equally loud (read: visible) voice. In other instances a user who is asked a question might not respond for more than thirty seconds or even a minute, a behavior unheard of in normal speech. Rapid feedback is limited by technological and user-based lags in netspeak, and the ability for users within a given virtual space such as a chatroom to maintain multiple ongoing conversations is severely limited. Messages can persist as well, floating about in cyberspace after being uttered for a varied period of time that is highly dependent on the CMC platform that the user is communicating on.

In addition to the consistent lack of pacing and predictability, netspeak, like written language, severely limits users’ ability to easily communicate kinesic (motions and gestures), proxemic (spatial) or paralinguistic (non-verbal means of modifying meaning and conveying emotion) cues (Crystal 2001). While it is still easily possible to hold a normal conversation without proxemic cues—although the lack of a physical body or face to communicate with unquestionably makes netspeak seem more cold and distant than the spoken word—it is the absence of kinesic and paralinguistic cues such as hand motions, raised eyebrows or a tonal change in vocals that represents the biggest communicative hurdle for netspeakers to conquer. Patricia Wallace accurately states in The Psychology of the Internet that these deficiencies make it incredibly easy to lie “as long as we can live with our own deceptions and the harm they may cause others,” which, while quite intriguing, brings up some important psychological ramifications that fall outside of my project’s purview (Quoted in Crystal 2001).

The most notable and highly publicized example of netspeakers bridging this communicatory void is their use of smileys, or emoticons as they are more commonly known. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past decade, you have likely seen a number of different emoticons before, either while communicating on or browsing the internet, watching television or reading a recently published novel; they have become so embedded into the world’s pop culture consciousness that they have become nearly impossible to escape. Emoticons are used to recreate the most common facial expressions in different CMCs, but the same smiley face can be interpreted in any number of ways based on factors like time lag and verbal context. Without careful use and a knowledgeable interpreter they can be (perhaps disastrously!) misinterpreted, but if used correctly they provide a playful substitute for paralinguistic and kinesic cues.

Capitalization (HEY!), repeating letters and punctuation (heyyyy!!!!), and other creative uses of typography (<Cooper looks up and waves hello>) are also often used to substitute these cues, although their total range of possible meanings is rather small as text is far less expressive than a combination of visuals and voice; it is used almost exclusively to signify “extra emphasis, surprise and puzzlement” (Crystal 2001). But as was the case with emoticons but far more so here, there is a lack of general rules regarding how to interpret these linguistic modifications so netspeakers should be cognizant of whom they are speaking with and what CMC platform they are speaking through when putting these to use. For those who are still getting the hang of netspeak’s constantly re-written rules, it would be wise to test out these expressions in the historically casual, low-risk forms of CMC, such as in a text message or while instant messaging.


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