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Language and the Internet

   by David Crystal

    Cambridge University Press
    01 October, 2001


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Editorial description(s):

From Library Journal
In this first book-length consideration of the Internet by a linguist, Crystal, whose Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and over 40 other books have established him as a leading authority on language, begins with the idea that the Internet is not just a technological revolution but a social one as well. The author reasons that language is central to the revolution and explores the role of language in the Internet and the effect of the Internet on language. In four central chapters, he details the significant linguistic features at work in the four major "situations" of the Internet: e-mail, chatgroups (including listservs and discussion groups), virtual worlds, and the web. He concludes that Netspeak (his word for the language of the Internet) is a new medium, "neither spoken language nor written language nor sign language, but a new language dimension computer-mediated language." Crystal sees Netspeak creating huge opportunities for the expansion and enrichment of language. This is only the first snapshot of an amazingly dynamic new field, but it provides some of the groundwork indispensable to future research. Recommended for larger public libraries and all academic collections. Paul D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Never mind those anxieties about the Internet's impact on privacy, intellectual property and the recreational habits of 12-year-olds. What is it doing to the future of the English language? Will it really lead to the end of literacy as we know it--not to mention spelling? Not according to David Crystal, a linguist who says in this witty, thoughtful book that, on the contrary, the discourse of the Internet--with its new, informal, even bizarre forms of language--neither threatens nor replaces existing varieties of English but instead enriches them, extending our range of expression and showing us "homo loquens at its best." Crystal, the Welsh author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language who is known to many in the U.S. through his comments on National Public Radio, analyzes the discourse of Web pages, e-mail, chatgroups and virtual-reality games. At first glance, much of this text certainly looks like a primer on linguistic irresponsibility: the shedding of capital letters; the minimalist punctuation; the perverse spellings and goofy abbreviations like RUOK ("are you okay?"); the smileys, such as :-), representing humor; the coining of terms at a rate that has no parallel in contemporary language. For Crystal, though, these phenomena are not portents of linguistic doom but examples of a set of language tactics developed for a new medium he calls computer-mediated communication. The innovative, sometimes screwball varieties of English expressed in computer-mediated channels, he says, have evolved as users have adapted their language creatively to meet changing circumstances. Smileys, for instance, appeared early in the language of e-mail as people struggled to replace many characteristics of speech, like pitch and tone, with symbols, using ;-) for winking or :-( for sadness. Most other forms of written language suffer under the same burden as e-mail, of course--they are not face-to-face and are therefore always ambiguous in their omission of cues such as intonation. So why are there no smileys in other forms of writing? Crystal argues that the answer lies in the immediacy of computer-mediated communication. Traditional writing entails time to revise, to make personal attitudes clear, to tinker with phrases. Smileys and other, related devices stand in for this extra work in the more spontaneous, fluid world of the new medium, which combines properties not only of speaking and writing but of rapid electronic exchange. Crystal is unbothered by typical usage issues--for instance, whether the form "email," "e-mail" or "E-mail" will prevail. He's willing to leave such matters to a future editorial consensus. And he does not worry about whether using "Dear Bob" instead of "Bob" at the beginning of an e-mail will make him a fuddy-duddy, as one handbook on e-mail usage advises. In fact, Crystal laughs at this prescriptive approach, arguing that to condemn one style as bad is to deny English users the stylistic option of switching, thereby reducing the versatility and richness of language. No single recommendation, he says, can suit the expectations of the range of audiences the Internet is reaching. His interest, instead, is in the readiness with which people are adapting spelling, grammar and semantics to meet the needs of Internet-based situations. The chapters on specific adaptations are studded with linguistic delights to satisfy anyone who has ever wondered what TTFN means ("ta ta for now") or tia ("thanks in advance") or gal ("get a life"). (Many more of these abbreviations are explained in highly entertaining tables, as are the varieties of smileys.) He tackles etymologies, too, and the derivations shed light on much that may otherwise have been mysterious: cc, for example, has a new gloss as "complimentary copy," now that carbon copies are a distant memory. He examines the plural ending "-en" that is popular on the Internet--as in "vaxen" for VAX computers--saying that such suffixes are a development that "will cause delight to all Anglo-Saxonists." Crystal devotes a chapter to the discourse of chatgroups--"gossip groups" is a more accurate description for most of what goes on within them, he says-which he characterizes as a "perpetual linguistic party, where you bring your language, not a bottle." He is fascinated by chatgroup language in part because it provides a domain in which to see written language in its most primitive state--banal, repetitive and untouched (as most writing is) by editing. "Chatgroups are the nearest we are likely to get to seeing writing in its spontaneous, unedited, naked state." He also reports on the scholarly literature of computer-mediated communication, including such gems as the finding that, in contrast to females, males on academic newslists sent longer messages, made stronger assertions and engaged in more self promotion, while making fewer apologies and asking fewer questions. Crystal is definitely upbeat, discovering the still evolving discourse of the Internet an area of huge potential enrichment. He uses the analogy of a gift he received-a new informal shirt. This shirt didn't destroy his sense of the value of formal and informal--it just made his previously satisfactory, informal shirts look somewhat staid. He sees the language of the Internet, too, as similarly extending the range of communication options. RUOK with this?

Anne Eisenberg

"This is an academic review, well referenced and footnoted, but Crystal's optimism and good humor abound. He has clarified many aspects of the styles and abbreviations one is likely to meet in e-communication, and he is documenting them, rather than trying to influence the style." The Times of Acadiana "This book provides an important look at how the Internet has affected our use of language. To my knowledge, there are no other comparable books available on this subject. Issues of language are certainly treated in many other books about the Internet, but this one features linguistics as its main topic. The book will be an important contribution." Patricia Wallace, Ph.D., Director, Information Services and Instructional Technologies Center for Talented Youth, The John Hopkins University Author, The Psychology and the Internet "This is only the first snapshot of an amazingly dynamic field, but it provides some of the groundwork indispensable to future research." su Library Journal "Provides some of the groundwork indispensable to future research. Recommended for larger public libraries and all academic collections." Library Journal "Crystal's book usefully puts into focus the linguistic experiences we're all having as we adjust to the new medium." San Jose Mercury News "Witty, thoughtful..." Scientific American "David Crystal notes a delicious irony in his new book Language and the Internet." Washington Times Oct 2001 "Wonderfully readable..." Netsurfer Digest Nov 2001 "A useful synthesis for undergraduates and general readers..." CHOICE "Engaging and provocative..." Nature

Book Info
First book by a language expert on the linguistic aspects of the Internet. Provides an important look at how the Internet has affected our use of language.

Book Description
According to popular mythology, the Internet will be bad for the future of language--technospeak will rule, standards will be lost, and creativity diminished as globalization imposes sameness. David Crystal, one of the foremost authorities on language, argues the reverse in his new book: that the Internet is enabling a dramatic expansion of the range and variety of language and is providing unprecedented opportunities for personal creativity. In order to grow and be maintained as a linguistic medium, the principles and standards of the Internet must evolve--and they will be very different from other mediums. Is the Internet a revolution? Is it a linguistic revolution? Beyond the visual panache of the presentation on a screen, the Internet's "linguistic" character is immediately obvious to anyone online. As the Internet has become incorporated into our lives, it is becoming clearer how it is being shaped by and is adapting language and languages. Language and the Internet is the first book by a language expert on the linguistic aspects of the Internet. Opening up linguistic issues for a general readership, Crystal argues that "netspeak" is a radically new linguistic medium that we cannot ignore. David Crystal is one of the foremost authorities on language, and as editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia he has used the Internet for research purposes from its earliest manifestations. His work for the technology company Classification Data Limited has involved him in the development of an information classification system with several Internet applications, and he has extensive professional experience of Web issues. Crystal is author of several books with Cambridge, including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1997), Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995), English as a Global Language (1997), and Langugage Death (2000) and Words on Words (University of Chicago, 2000) . An internationally renowned writer, journal editor, lecturer and broadcaster, he received an OBE in 1995 for his services to the English language. His edited books include The Cambridge Encyclopedia (Fourth Edition, 2000) The Cambridge Paperback Encyclopedia (Third Edition, 1999), The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia (Second Edition, 1997) and The Cambridge Factfinder ( Fourth Edition, 2000).

Reader review(s):

New Styles for the New Medium, February 4, 2002
Look at that next e-mail from someone you consider intelligent, and maybe you will see that little regard is paid to exact spelling, to punctuation, even to using capital letters. Are we becoming illiterates by means of the amazing changes the Internet has brought? Dr. David Crystal, who has produced many scholarly volumes such as _The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language_, uses the internet a lot, and has looked into the many forms of its use by other people. It is changing things, surely, but it is its own new medium drastically different from anything that has gone before, and Crystal says, "It shows language expanding richly in all sorts of directions." In _Language and the Internet_ (Cambridge University Press), Crystal surveys the language used in different branches of the Internet, and although he admits that some of his findings are going to be quickly dated because of the Internet's extreme rate of change, his book is a useful initial survey of Internet language, one upon which future studies will draw as a foundation.

The remarkable function of the Internet in linguistic communication stems from its not quite being speech and not quite being writing. Communication in chatgroups or MUD's, and to a lesser extent e-mail, is typed but is a good deal like speech, displaying the immediacy and flow of conversation. This is an entirely new way of communicating. It means that John's speech is typed one keystroke at a time, but appears to recipients all of a piece, with no way that a recipient can react to it while it is being typed. Unlike with speech, the sender cannot be clued by an "Uh-huh" to indicate that the speech in progress is being well received. The speed of such interactions, dependent on keystrokes and speed of the Internet at that particular time, means that the rhythm of interaction is not only slow, but irregularly and unpredictably so. If there are multiple users, everyone's speech is displayed along with everyone else's, with little of the ear's ability to tune into just one speaker. Taking turns in conversation, which we take for granted face-to-face or on the telephone, is disrupted, and no one can get cues from tone of voice. Crystal reviews many of the responses Internet users have developed to deal with the peculiarities of the new medium. There is a list of the famous "smileys" or "emoticons" which are punctuation marks used to simulate smiling faces, frowning faces, confusion, winking, and so on. Their linguistic interest is that they could have shown up earlier in written language; only with the immediacy of Net communication did smileys become a useful tool. He reviews ways in which content of this form of communication may be shaped by the new medium, and is dismissive of the current crop of style manuals that would impose rules on it.

This is an academic review, well referenced and footnoted, but Crystal's optimism and good humor abound. He has clarified many aspects of the styles and abbreviations one is likely to meet in e-communication, and he is documenting them, rather than trying to influence the style. And sometimes it is all amusingly above his head; check the footnote which ought to translate "Hay! Odz r he wen 2 Radio Hack 4 a nu crys 4 hiz rainbow box!" and you will find: "I don't understand it, either."

Of Nonce and Nonsense, December 13, 2001
The Internet doesn't allow one to write faster; it simply sends the message faster. It is another stage in the development of commerce, not a new medium of communication. Opportunists are so happy to have something new to perch on, but beware: you've got to entertain to get away with making a living making something out of nothing. This doesn't.

Core value: a source of references to related research, July 10, 2002
I read it. I really did. It was painful.

Not because David can't communicate, his writing is easy and sometimes fun. At no point was content hard to get through - what stunk was having to read the book cover to cover before I grasped the book's true value - as a weapon.

As another reviewer pointed out, most of the "conclusions" are what some may call "no brainers." Like, duh! The truest value this book provides is that its hard bound, written by "the guy who wrote the Cambridge dictionary," and therefore immutable.

Think about it. How often do we get into subjective tug-o-wars regarding what users are or are not doing? This book is hard bound, written by a "world famous linguist," and thus proves whatever point I'm trying to make, depending upon which direction the weapon is pointing.

I know it's slimy. I don't care. Its a tool, allowing me to quell schedule-breaking controversy, and as a reference to other research (which is much appreciated!)

So for that reason the book is well worth the investment.

needs to be retitled "Internet for Dummies", February 14, 2002
I'm a graduate student with a focus in computer technologies and writing, so I approached this book with an attitude of "what can I learn about language and the Internet?" The answer, unfortunately, was: not much. If you're at all familiar with the Internet and use email regularly, most of Crystal's book will just be covering a lot that you already know. Crystal gives the impression of having just discovered the Internet--e.g., he voices frustration at the number of non-relevant hits from a search on a word like 'depression', something that most of us have figured out strategies to deal with (and which he, as a linguist, might find interesting). Some of the solutions he suggests to the search-engine problem are already out or in beta, yet he doesn't show any familiarity with such developments.

Crystal admits up front that his aims with this book are modest -- basically, he wants to ask whether the Internet has affected language and language use. Um, well, yeah it has.

But he never answers the question that my undergraduate English professor made us ask of all of our paper theses--So what? Why/how do these changes matter? What larger significance do they have? As a linguist, Crystal isn't perhaps so interested in social or political commentary, but never was there such a disembodied look at language. It's as though because the words appear on a screen, we don't need to think about the social, political, or economic pressures that influence these "language communities" he's looking at. He admits that market forces are driving which languages get to be used in the "global village" but then acts as if that fact is of little consequence.

Crystal's method is best described as descriptive--but he doesn't have much to describe, as his sample for analysis includes his own email as well as that of his two children. And as far as I can tell, he doesn't attempt to tie in these changes to any kind of linguistic theory (with the exception of his use of Grice to explain the cooperative nature of conversation). I'm also struck by the lack of evidence that he's read in this area at all--no citation of Sherry Turkle, for example, whose work would have been informative for the whole chapter he spends on MUDs.

If you know next to nothing about Internet-related communication (email, web pages, MUDs) then this book would be a good introduction for you (hence the title of this post). Viewed as an very introductionary text, I'd probably give this a slightly higher rating, because it is clearly written.

much-needed academic discussion of online language, April 23, 2003
David Crystal, one of the world's eminent linguists, has given us a desperately-needed academic resource: this text. Although, as other reviewers have pointed out, some of the conclusions drawn are fairly obvious, this text is useful to have such conclusions stated concisely, in a single location, by a recognised linguist.

The book discusses the effects of the Internet on language, specifically English. Anyone who has spent any length of time online has noted that the language used online is a strange mix of formal and informal, abbreviations and highly-specialised jargon. How does this effect the language as a whole? Crystal does not pretend to answer this question, but raises questions for later research.

As with any book that discusses an aspect of the Internet, some pieces of the book are out-of-date. Search engines are more robust than when Crystal surveyed them. MUDs are essentially dead, replaced in part by massively-multiplayer online games that have their own linguistic ramifications.

In all, this book is an interesting and clearly-written broad introduction to the application of linguistics to the Internet. It is not an advanced text, although the nearly-exhaustive footnotes and citations are an excellent resource for a reader who would like to learn more.

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