Linguistic Revolution?

At this point it should be abundantly clear that literacy in netspeak is, and will continue to be, a vital skill to possess in modern society. The internet is an incredibly vast repository of knowledge and resources, and as digital technologies provide increasingly greater access to this informational network, the ability to efficiently navigate it becomes more important (Leu et. al. 2004). Societal expectations for literacy and language are constantly molded by a plethora of influences, and in this digital age, the most powerful influence is that of global economics. Being able to quickly identify important problems and questions, synthesize and evaluate information, and locate answers through use of the internet and forms of CMC will likely become a mandatory skill for future employees in many fields to have.

Back in 2001, Literacy in Education Professor Guy Merchant of Sheffield Hallam University wrote a particularly insightful article titled “Teenagers in Cyberspace: An Investigation of Language Use and Language Change in Internet Chatroom”, in which he discusses how Plato’s Phaedrus and French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of linguistic capital are very relevant to today’s debate over the effects of netspeak and the internet on standard language. Within Phaedrus, he says, the myth of Thamus (an Egyptian king) and Theuth (the inventor of the written word) is used to weigh the merits and impact of communicative media on young people. Thamus is concerned about how writing will affect young people, fearing that they “will receive a quantity of information without instruction”; the king sees new communication technologies as a threat to the traditional acquisition of knowledge through spoken discourse (Merchant 2001).

As for Bourdieu, he argues that language and power are an intimately intertwined force which he calls linguistic capital, and when language changes it leads to shifts in power and moral panic. He goes on to say that each person has their own habitus, a complex set of social values and behaviors, which is often learned or inculcated on “a pre-conscious level” through every day action. This acquisition of a sort of mental schema for perception and attitudes is done within fields, “aspects of everyday life such as family life, education or everyday communicative practices”. In the case of new communicative technologies, the young people who regularly access them are “active agents in developing a linguistic market but their exchanges are delimited by its relationship to the wider social habitus”. Those who have control over these fields can influence what sorts of perceptions and attitudes are acquired within them, and that power is being challenged by young people, the primary user base of these communicative technologies who are re-writing the rules within the field of internet communication and creating a new style of language. This ties back into Thamus’ viewing of new communicative technologies as a threat to traditional knowledge acquisition methods; he represents one of the traditionally dominant groups or institutions (albeit a now very dated one) that seek to reinforce the norms of legitimate language, as whoever controls the dominant language controls what is said and how it is said.  These norms are protected by “two principal factors…the family and the educational system” (Merchant 2001).

To make things even more complicated, the young, emergent global culture is supported by commercial interests that seek to capitalize on young people’s linguistic power, catering to current trends in order to sell them new technologies or groom them to use as a future workforce. In summation, young people’s linguistic capital is currently at the center of a global battle between dominant institutions that wish to convert young people to the norms of legitimate language and economic forces that wish to cater to young people’s needs in the short term but exploit them for capital in the long term. As Merchant states, “young people are the vanguards of this emerging digital landscape,” exploiting the possibilities of digital communicative technologies to create an identity for themselves while also satisfying their most urgent personal, social and educational needs (Merchant 2001). They are the ones with the most untapped power, re-writing the rules of the game while the less technology-savvy adults and news media struggle to catch up and take back linguistic control.

Head on to the next page where I highlight how the media’s misrepresentation of netspeak’s influence on standard language is rooted in Bourdieu’s concept of linguistic capital and the age gap between young CMC users and adults in media.

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