Introduction – The Rise of Netspeak

There exists a certain childhood memory shared by many young adults worldwide, one that is likely very familiar to whoever is reading this blog right now. It is the memory of spending countless afternoons and evenings sitting by computers trading inside jokes and gossiping with friends through instant messaging services such as AIM, and every once in a while our parents would approach us, gaze at the screen and ask with obvious befuddlement: “What on Earth does that mean?” We would then explain to them, making sure to speak very slowly and roll our eyes in exasperation, that TTYL is short for “talk to you later” and doesn’t refer to a street somewhere or an illicit new drug. Little did we know that, through these experiences, we were schooling ourselves in a new style of language at home just as much as we were while practicing Standard English grammar in a classroom.

This language of the internet—netspeak, as I will refer to it henceforth—rose to global prominence as a result of the digital revolution and the subsequent wave of computer mediated communication (CMC) technologies that have been incorporated into society and our daily lives. It is a constantly shape-shifting language, volatile, vibrant and in many ways completely unstructured that also incorporates a variety of time-tested elements from traditional written and spoken language. It is a peculiar hybrid of a language the likes of which has never been used before on such a massive scale.

But unlike what stubborn academics and perplexed parents would tell you about it being disorganized techno-babble and that “civilization is in danger of crumbling as a result”, this is indeed a language with sets of rules, albeit new ones that are hyper-specific to certain CMCs, regions and cultures. (Quoted in Thurlow and Bell 2009) These “prophets of doom” would like to you believe that these new communication technologies are bringing about the death of civilized language, but as illustrated below in this cheerily informative minute-long video on the brief history of netspeak by Irish linguist David Crystal, language change as a result of technological innovation is in no ways a novel concept (Crystal 2005).

The development of netspeak is an unprecedented event in the history of linguistics, as the internet provides us with a wide range of methods for monitoring the rate and reach of netspeak’s evolution in the form of its vocabulary, grammar, spelling and (increasingly) punctuation (Crystal 2005). Never before has it been so easy to publish or access such a staggeringly large library of human-written text! This opportunity taken together with the integration of CMCs into our daily lives has forced us to rethink our roles as communicators and what the values of different types of language can be, all while being told by scholastic institutions and various media outlets that netspeak, particularly the style found in texting, is unprofessional nonsense and killing standard language and literacy. However, no studies exist that link frequent use of CMCs with poorer language and literacy skills, and I will argue that the consistently negative nature of the public discussion regarding netspeak is an overblown reaction to the historically normal behavior of young people creatively adapting new communication technologies, a response which has its roots firmly planted in economics and power. (Plester et. al. 2008) (Thurlow and Bell 2009).

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