Understanding the New Rules of Language
By Gretchen McCulloch
The internet has greatly expanded the volume and visibility of informal writing. (Duh.) In “Because Internet,” the linguist Gretchen McCulloch reviews the ways the online environment is changing how we communicate. If you are concerned about digital tools dumbing down written English, or leaving young people with lazier syntactic habits, this is definitely not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you are interested in how language actually works (the rules are just collective agreements, constantly renegotiated), and how the internet is changing those rules, it definitely is.
McCulloch is doubly suited to this subject, as a scholar and part of the first generation to grow up with social media (her capsule bio: “I’m a linguist, and I live on the internet”). Her grand theme is linguistic inventiveness in the expanded field of digital communication. While verbal discourse has always ranged in formality from TED Talk to pillow talk, writing has long been associated with a stricter style McCulloch usefully labels “edited English.” Unedited English, the stuff of notes on the refrigerator and high school yearbooks, was once both sparse and ephemeral.
No more. Even the meanest online conversationalist writes more in a day than most 20th-century folk did in a week, and all that practice is producing new complexity. One researcher, studying writing on a social network, concluded that “15-year-old users in 2016 wrote more complex posts than users of any age in 2008.” All that practice also produces new linguistic rules. McCulloch shows how even the keysmash — pounding the keyboard when you just can’t even — has been regularized. Online conversationalists will tell you “agdj;kasgjk” is more keysmashish than “~Iw=L2/Bl_W.” Some people even edit keysmashes if they come out looking wrong. Similarly, some people remove autocorrected capital letters, to preserve the lowercase-means-casual format. When people expend extra effort to make their messages look spontaneous, they’re not lazy. They are invested in getting informal communications right.
But what is “right” anyway? Where does this sense of linguistic correctness come from? The message of “Because Internet” is that language is correct when sender and receiver understand a message in their shared context. That’s it. It’s social agreement all the way down. There is no ultimate authority, no unambiguously appropriate form, no way an outsider can correctly say other people are doing it wrong. Ideology camouflages self-interest as principle; language policing is snobbery disguised as diligence. This pattern is as old as dictionaries, and as new as lolcats: When meme-making was partially automated in the late 2000s, the old guard, who’d made their lolcats by hand, thank you very much, began to complain that the newcomers had things too easy. (When it comes to communication, even kids today complain about kids today.)
McCulloch expands her exploration to include visible symbols like emojis. She mentions “Emoji Dick,” the translation of “Moby-Dick” into emojis (by a former student of mine, as it happens), then shows why trying to translate sentences into emoji is like, well, like some big literary metaphor for a futile pursuit. Emojis don’t replace words; no one says “sunglasses fire 100” out loud. Instead they indicate gestures (thumbs up, facepalm) or context (laughing, crying, crying laughing) or mood. (“Sometimes an eggplant is not just an eggplant,” as Freud famously didn’t say.)
Through all the linguistic interpretations and contemporary examples, McCulloch builds an argument that the internet isn’t just changing the way we use language, it’s changing the way we think about it. When the most visible medium for written English was print, our metaphor for language was the book: fixed, authoritative, slow to change. Now that most written English is informal and online, our collective metaphor is shifting to language as a network: fluid, collectively negotiated, constantly altered. Language is, as McCulloch puts it, humankind’s largest open-source project; and the internet makes it much easier for all of us to see, and be, contributors.
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