David Crystal on Language and the Internet
As John Elsey, the founder of the Chester Literature Festival pointed out in this speech of thanks Professor David Crystal has written many books including one on grammar which my son used for his course in A level English language, and one on endangered languages - a topic that has interested me recently. He has also written a book on language and the internet which was first published in 2002 and is now in its second edition - a reflection of how fast things are moving in this area.
David Crystal is an entertaining speaker, peppering his talk with demonstrations and movement. There was a section where he carried out a conversation with himself and this was resumed, at intervals, throughout the talk.
He started with the question how can you tell if you are addicted to the internet? Apparently, if you google the terms Internet addiction (I tried this) you come up with certain criteria. I went through the list. I think the answer in my case is probably yes, but I am really not bothered - especially since there is a blog for me to discuss my addiction with other users.
David Crystal offered his own criteria: if you visit the bathroom in the middle of the night does it occur to you to check your email on the way back to bed? There were others but this one appealed to me - because, I am afraid, the answer was yes. All the time. Without fail. In fact sometimes I lie awake thinking about going on-line - well not on-line exactly, just writing something. Usually it ends up on my desk top or in the middle of a novel but sometimes it does end up in the middle of a blog or an email. Strangely, after I have finished I go back to bed and go straight to sleep. This is not supposed to happen, I know, something non-stimulating is supposed to be the ideal thing to do, but it doesn't work for me.
But I digress. The internet, David Crystal says, is ideal for the linguistic addict. It is the latest of the major linguistic revolutions: the first was speech - about 100 000 years ago, the second was writing (separately evolved in different parts of the world 10 000 years ago) and the deaf sign language - no one knows when this evolved - maybe 500-600 years ago, but maybe much earlier.
The electronic revolution has changed language in a way we have never seen before. When we communicate electronically we say we are 'talking' on the internet even though we are writing words on the screen. In fact we are doing neither.
We are not having a conversation because there is no simultaneous feedback. The feedback comes later. There have been attempts to enliven conversations in chat rooms, MSM messaging and emails by using 'emotocons' but these have not really caught on. Only 12% of internet users use them.
Other differences is that gender is sometimes withheld (60% are not the gender they say they are), as are the person's name (90% use made-up names), age and what they look like. It is also possible to have a conversation with many people almost at once in a chat room - which is different from conversation in a party.
Communication is not like writing either because since the system is dynamic the content is not permanent and may be refreshed; and furthermore features like pop up advertising mean that there is animation and movement - which is missing from the conventional written word.
Another important difference is that email replies are frequently 'framed' in that a person replies to key parts of a person's email by 'framing' the answers within the original text (David Crystal estimates that this can happen 7 times before the result becomes unintelligible).
There is also the possibility of hypertext links. As Jim Burnesley said in 1991 in the internet 'everything iis connected to everything'.
He then went on to list the different sorts of internet communications to emphasise how quickly everything has changed:
Mid 1990s - first emails
1997/987 First chat rooms
(2000 mobile phone texting)
2002 - first Msm messaging)
2003 - blogging.
These are the approximate dates the different communications first became popular and widely available.
Blogs, he says (after a quick explanation of what they are which I think I needn't give in this context!) quickly become focused and bloggers find other bloggers with similar interests. I nodded my head again here. It also gives the linguist a chance to see something quite extraordinary; that is language in its 'naked form' (i.e. how it is used with no interference from editors). There has been nothing like this since Chaucer's time. Chaucer wrote language as it sounded (just as in my competition in fact - only 10 days left now) and was inconsistent in spelling since Chaucer used several different scribes (some of them were Dutch, apparently, which is why extra letter were put in some words - like the 'h' in ghost).
David Crystal also says that different styles are adopted by different age-groups; older people tend to be more careful while younger people break rules although they are still understandable. Punctuation is sometimes lost (as in Anglo Saxon), with word spaces can be left out for instance, and these mistakes are all made in the public arena and recorded forever. He emphasised this, and I think I was not the only one who found this disturbing. Somewhere all that we release to the internet is recorded - every email, every blog, every website text...
He says that although the internet has brought few new words to the English language (only 500-600) and there has been no major revolution in grammar - there has been a revolution in style, opportunity and expression.
The next five years will bring even more changes than the last five years. He expects the auditory revolution will be the next big change. Also other languages will gain a larger share - in 1997 80% websites were in English by 2003 less than 50% were in English. Continents such as East Asia (China), Africa and South America will 'join in' and there will be more sites in Spanish and Mandarin. Eventually the internet will reflect the ratio of languages in the world and a third will be in English.
The internet will help to keep endangered languages alive. 50% of languages are in danger of extinction and the internet is a boon; both enabling individual speakers to keep in contact even if distant, and being of big interest to teenagers - a vital aspect in keeping the language alive. For instance there are many sites in Welsh and this is helping to preserve the Welsh language with some success. Which reminds me - I really must try again to log on to that Lampeter on-line site and go over my Welsh. So many resolutions - so little time.
The talk finished with the usual answers and questions. One of the most interesting comments was from an English teacher who is also an examiner. She said that they were sometimes told by some exam boards to turn a blind eye to children in examinations who used the abbreviations commonly used today in text messaging (David Crystal had commented earlier how extraordinary it was that this language of abbreviations has grown up among the young). His comment on this was interesting. He said that part of growing up was to acquire a stylistic range and learn how to use language appropriately. I nodded my head again...
Unfortunately the bookseller, who normally attends these events, did not appear. I expect he has a good reason - he is normally quite reliable. However this did mean I got massive kudos lumbering up with that great well-thumbed Encyclopaedia of Language I bought so many years ago. It is now adorned with Professor David Crystal's signature, so I am very proud.