Netspeak versus Writing

As stated earlier by Robert Fischer, we are collectively redefining the meaning of writing by spending a steadily increasing number of hours parked in front of our computers and smartphone tapping out text, time that used to be spent in face-to-face conversation or on the telephone. “We now commonly write email, instant messages, or text messages,” Naomi Baron tells us in Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. “We air our thoughts and knowledge on listservs, in blogs, on Facebook, and on Wikipedia. The sheer amount of writing we are churning out is staggering.” (Baron 2008) Truly, “staggering” is the only word that comes close to accurately describing the amount of writing that humans are now pumping into cyberspace on a daily basis; with the prices of internet-capable computers declining and wireless networks growing larger every day, it’s easier than ever for anyone to have their voice heard on the internet through text.

Netspeak borrows a great deal from traditional styles of writing, but on the internet many of writing’s traditional rules can also be bent or subverted. Hyperlinks allow users to jump to different points within a text or to another text entirely, facilitating systems of citations and references. Redundancies are thrown out the window to accommodate our collective desire to communicate efficiently. Electronic pages of text can be “cut, added to, revised, annotated, even totally restructured” after already being published and “in ways that nonetheless retain the character of the original” (Crystal 2001). Where written text is static and stuck to the page, netspeak is far more fluid and fleeting, routinely interfered with in ways that raise tricky questions about copyright and ownership. Below, you’ll find another informative chart from Language and the Internet, this time displaying which criteria for traditional writing persist in different netspeak styles (Crystal 2001).

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

As anyone who has communicated on the internet before using CMC platforms like email or blogs, netspeak is not a lawless language of hyperspecific acronyms and technical jargon. In fact, it is far more similar to the written word than it is to speech, and one only begins to see the rules of traditional writing being frequently broken when communicating on the most informal and intimate platforms, such as while texting a close friend. Netspeak writings are still made public in a manner akin to traditional publishing, and as such, those who write through those means still tend to follow the same rules of grammar, syntax and linear structure. Writing still possesses a professional status, a position it holds due to its historical association with powerful and prestigious institutions.

But as I stated before, the need for speed has driven netspeak to toss some of traditional writing’s more formal and elegant characteristics by the wayside in a push towards “ease of production and comprehension”. A prime example of this is the trend of netspeakers using capitalization and punctuation minimally or not at all. It is becoming rare to see netspeakers in chatrooms or instant messages adorning the beginnings of their sentences with capitalizations, both because it takes an extra second to turn on caps lock and because, as Gao Liwei cleverly points out, “the period already demarcates the end of the last sentence” (Liwei 2001). Traditional openings and closures like “Dear,” or “Sincerely,” are just as uncommon outside of emails.

Netspeakers also commonly use lexical compounds lexical compounds and portmanteaus, many of which have bled into written—perhaps within an academic article—and spoken language; examples include “shareware”, “netiquette”, or tacking the prefixes “e-” or “cyber-” onto other traditional words. And as we surely all know, the informality of many CMC platforms is often embodied by their user bases’ lax attitude towards accurate spelling on account of the desire for efficiency, even when many of those platforms are outfitted with spellchecking capabilities (Thurlow 2001). It is these linguistic adaptations along with the previously mentioned substitutions for paralinguistic and kinesic cues that have become the public scapegoat for netspeak’s “degenerative” influence on standard language, but as I will demonstrate in the next section, these changes have been blown out of proportion by media and educational institutions that view this linguistic evolution as a new threat to their seats of societal power.


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