Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1


As the non-English-speaking world comes online and preserves
their full character sets in their online catalogs and other retrieval
systems, matching filing order, keyboard input, and display, will
become ever more complex.

And it is precisely this world which is now coming online, in ever-
increasing numbers.

Languages on the Web

The Web is an eclectic medium, and this is seen also in its multilin-
guistic inclusiveness. Not only does it offer a home to all linguistic
styles within a language; it offers a home to all languages – once
their communities have a functioning computer technology. This
has been the most notable change since the Web began. It was orig-
inally a totally English medium – as was the Internet as a whole,
given its US origins.^33 But with the Internet’s globalization, the
presence of other languages has steadily risen. In the mid-1990s,
a widely quoted figure was that just over 80% of the Net was in
English. This was supported by a 1997 survey by Babel, a joint ini-
tiative of the Internet Society and Alis Technologies, the first major
study of language distribution on the Internet.^34 This study used
a random number generator to find 8,000 computers hosting an
HTTP server; and a program then subjected a selection of pages to
an automatic language identification, using software which could
recognize 17 languages. Of 3,239 home pages found, the language
distribution (after correction for various types of possible error)
was as shown in Table 7.1. The gap between English and the other
languages is notable, and supports the widespread impression, fre-
quently reported in newspaper headlines, that the language of the
Internet ‘is’ English. ‘World, Wide, Web: 3 English Words’ was the

(^33) See Crystal (1997c). Jim Erickson (1998) sums it up in a story from Al Gore reporting the
remark of the eight-year-old son of Kyrgyzstan’s President Akayev, who told his father
that he had to learn English. When asked why, the child apparently replied: ‘Because the
34 computer speaks English’.
<>. For Babel’s project on internationalizing the
Internet, see

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