Friday, October 20, 2006

David Crystal on Language and the Internet

When Hodmandod Minor was indeed very minor, I went to work in the evenings analysing water for the local water company. It was a monotonous but useful sort of job and when I left I was given some book tokens. These book tokens had a huge value it seemed to me and so I went to a local bookshop and indulged in buying some big books that I wouldn't normally buy. One of the books, which turned out to be my favourite, was THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LANGUAGE by David Crystal, so I was delighted to find that the author was attending the Chester Literature Festival this year.

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
1999 Google
(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.


Blogger Susanne Gunning said...

Thank you for this wonderful article - as an online ESL facilitator I found the facts and discussion fascinating. Would you mind if I placed your blog URL onto my blog page as I am sure some of my colleagues would enjoy reading your article?

Fri Oct 20, 11:56:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

By all means, Susanne - I'm delighted you found it of interest.

Sat Oct 21, 12:21:00 am  
Anonymous marly said...

On the way to the bathroom? Clare, that is a pitch of fervor I do not reach!

He looks entertaining--I like the part about his conversations with himself. Not too many people could carry that off.

Sat Oct 21, 01:28:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the Encyclopedia of Language about? It must be about languages, obviously, but what exactly is he discussing?

Sat Oct 21, 02:31:00 am  
Anonymous clare said...

Ah, you see Marly, you are not a true addict...

Aydin: looking through the list of contents I see 11 main section: popular ideas of language which includes things like verbal taboos, then 'Lnaguage and Identity' - relating age, gender, personality, geography, ethnic group etc, then 'The Structure of Language' -ranges from grammar and dictionaries to patterns in the use of personal names, then various sections on 'The Medium of Language' in cluding one on 'Reading and Writing' (4 chapters - including the writing systems of language), 'Speaking and listening' (9 chapters including speech reception, sounds etc) and 'Signing and seeing' (3 chapters on sign language). Then there are other sections on 'Child langage recognition', 'Language, brain and handicap', a particularly good large section on 'The Languages of the world' then 'Language in the world' - about the problems arising from language and the way people have overcome this (8 chapters) and finally 'Language and communication'.

There are 458 large pages - very well illustrated. It's a fascinating book (though since it was written in 1987 - there might be a risk that some of the information is dated - but not much, I expect).

Sat Oct 21, 07:27:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating and relevant - we've got to keep up after all with all these trends - but sometimes I feel I lag a little.
However, blogging is a whole new world - and we're part of it Clare - that's quite exciting non?
Thanks for taking the time to report back so methodically and conscientously. I feel like I am keeping up - just.
And I would be the type to check on emails on the midnight toilet break - if I could see (I wear contacts ;))

Sat Oct 21, 09:38:00 am  
Anonymous Carol said...

Clare I intend to use the facts you quoted in my reports from now on! I was reminded of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, with the notion that parts of society esp the young inhabiting a different psychological space in which cyber reality is mediated by the new language forms. I think it's exciting. I love the creativity of language and communication! Carol

Mon Jan 15, 09:22:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Thanks for dropping by, Carol - and glad to be of use. Yes, we live in exciting times -this global communication could change everything for the good, I think - if we let it.

Mon Jan 15, 09:41:00 pm  
Anonymous marwa said...

hello am a master student of linguistics and am working on language and internet and i want to know what iw david crystal book language and the internet is about i meant the outline of the book

Sun Oct 17, 10:33:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hi Marwa - both the Crystal books would make essential reading for you as a student of Linguistics I should think. I think the best thing you could do if you wanted to find out more is to either buy them or borrow them from the library.

Sun Oct 17, 01:18:00 pm  
Anonymous Fahd from Morocco said...

I really appreciate what you wrote about Cystal's book language and the Internet. I am a master student in linguistic in Morocco and we are studying mainly this book. I made a conclusion about the book as a whole: Language of the internet is evolving as well but in a rapid way.

Tue Feb 22, 09:48:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you for letting me know, Fahd! And your conclusion sounds a good one to me!

Tue Feb 22, 10:13:00 pm  

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