Because Internet: the new linguistics of informal English

Conversational language is not the same as formal language: chatter over the dinner table does not follow the same rules as a speech from a podium. Informal language follows its own fluid, fast-moving rules, and most of what we know about historic informal language has been gleaned from written fragments, like old letters and diaries -- but now, the internet has produced a wealth of linguistic data on informal language, which is explored in Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch's new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

Informal language has always been hard to study. Even after the development of systems for recording speech, large-scale analysis depended on accurate transcription and hand-coding of these recordings.

The internet changes all that. Charlie Stross has called the internet "the beginning of history," in which the minutae of everyday people's lives are being recorded for the first time ever. As historian and sf writer Ada Palmer once told me, the internet is producing one of the very first records of what normal people eat and future historians who study our time will not be forced to pore over the food in the backgrounds of oil paintings to get a sense of our culinary moment.

One of the disciplines to benefit from this new world of recorded and machine-parseable everyday activity is linguistics. Large-scale analysis of internet communications -- old BBSes and forums, mailing lists and blogs, social media and texts -- is yielding new insights into the patterns and evolution of informal speech, and McCulloch's insightful, lively chronicle of that new discipline and its conclusions make for fun, informative reading.

One fascinating theme running through McCulloch's account is the way that informal writers resort to typographical tricks to create nuance, play, and mood in their words, from ALL-CAPS SHOUTING to all lowercase minimalism to ~*~sparkle emphasis~*~ to the use of tildes to signify drawn~ out~ words~, a convention that started in Japanese online communications, spread through southeast Asia, and then to western conversations by way of anime fandom.

Especially interesting is the chapter on emoji, which proposes that emoji are not (as is commonly claimed) a new language, but rather a form of digital "gesture" and "emblem": two vital forms of communication which have antique and verbal equivalents, but which were largely lost in the digital transition, only to come roaring back (a later chapter on memes also traces the historic and verbal equivalents to these fascinating components of online informal communications).

McCulloch is doing important work here, studying the informal language of English speakers. English is different from many other languages in that is has no "language academy" whose blessing confers "correctness" on given words or usage -- rather, English is a glorious and robust mongrel of a language, filled with borrowed words, weird and shifting syntax, and no consensus on spelling or grammar. This fluidity -- often denied by pedants who assert that the rules they were taught are eternal truths, not mere opinions -- has been key to English's global success and its marvellous expressivity.

A celebration of informal language is always welcome; the focus on formal correctness denies us key insights (for example, transcripts of Trump's speeches render some of his rhetorical flourishes -- which work very well on his base -- incoherent, making it harder to understand why people are convinced by his nonsense). I'm also interested in the phenomenon of precocious readers whose language-acquisition is more influenced by literature than speech, who grow up to be adults whose spoken English much more closely resembles formal written English -- I wonder if the existence of a rich textual social world is reducing the prevalence of this phenomenon.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language [Gretchen McCulloch/Riverhead]

(Image: Ron Mader, CC-BY-SA)