Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1


At one level, it is extremely easy to define the linguistic identity of
e-mail as a variety of language; at another level, it is surprisingly
difficult. The easy part lies in the fixed discourse structure of the
message – a structure dictated by the mailer software which has
become increasingly standardized over the past twenty years. Just
in the same way as we can analyse the functionally distinct elements
that constitute a newspaper article (in terms of headline, body copy,
illustration, caption, etc.) or a scientific paper (in terms of title,
authorship, abstract, introduction, methodology, etc.), so we can
familiar to likely readers of this book that they need only the briefest
of expositions. The difficult part, to which the bulk of this chapter
relates, lies in the range of opinions about the purpose of e-mail, as
a communicative medium, and about the kind of language which
is the most appropriate and effective to achieve that purpose. With
over 800 million people using e-mail by 2000,^1 and 100 million
or so being sent each day, a consensus seems unlikely, especially
when age, sex, and cultural differences are taken into account. At
the same time, it ought at least to be possible to identify what the
parameters of disagreement are, to develop a sense of the range of
linguistic features which any characterization of e-mail would have
to include.^2

(^1) From estimates provided by the Internet Society (
Information and Directory Services ( in 2000 there were almost
100 million Internet hosts, though there were signs of a slowing in the host growth rate,
2 over 30 million registered domain names, and over 800 million e-mail users.
In this chapter, I have used data taken from my own e-messages, supplemented by exam-
ples taken from messages sent to a younger generation, kindly supplied by my 23-year-old
son and 26-year-old daughter. The desirability of a corpus of e-mail data is stressed by
Johansson (1991: 307-8), and also Yates (1996: 30).

Free download pdf