Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1

The medium of Netspeak 25

writers have called Internet language ‘written speech’;^1 andWired
Styleadvises: ‘Write the way people talk.’^2 The authors of a detailed
study of an asynchronous chatgroup, Davis and Brewer, say that
‘electronic discourse is writing that very often reads as if it were
being spoken – that is, as if the sender were writing talking’.^3 But
to what extent is it possible to ‘write speech’, given a keyboard re-
stricted to the letters of the alphabet, numerals, and a sprinkling of
other symbols, and a medium which – as we shall see – disallows
some critical features of conversational speech?^4 Moreover,asthe
world is composed of many different types of people who talk in
many different ways, what kind of speech is it, exactly, that the new
style guides want us to be writing down? The language of geeks
(p. 16) has had a strong influence on Netspeak hitherto, its jargon
appealing to a relatively young and computer-literate population.
But what will happen to Netspeak as the user-base broadens, and
people with a wider range of language preferences come online?
‘Write the way people talk’ sounds sensible enough, until we have
to answer the question: which people?
Before we can answer these questions, we need to be clear about
the nature of spoken and written language, and of the factors which
differentiate them – factors which have received a great deal of
attention in linguistics. Table 2.1 is a summary of the chief dif-
ferences, derived from one general source,The Cambridge ency-
lopedia of the English language.^5 Speech is typically time-bound,

(^1) For example, Elmer-Dewitt (1994).
(^2) In full:Wired style: principles of English usage in the digital age(Hale and Scanlon, 1999).
3 The quotation is part of Principle 5: ‘Capture the colloquial’ (see p. 75 below).
Davis and Brewer (1997: 2). Ferrara, Brunner, and Whittemore (1991) talk of ‘interactive
written discourse’, and similar locutions can be found, such as ‘textual conversation’ and
4 ‘electronic dialogue’.
The reduced communicative system has been called ‘metacommunicative minimalism’
5 by Millard (1996: 147).
Crystal (1995: 291). Other characteristics of speech and writing have been noted, rec-
ognizing the differentiating role of more specific linguistic features, such as personal
pronouns and formulaic expression. The word ‘typically’ is crucial: it has long been
known that there is no absolute difference between spoken and written language (Crystal
and Davy, 1969); even the notion of a continuum is an oversimplification of the way
the variables intertwine (Biber, 1988; and see also the use of this model by Collot and
Belmore, 1996). But it proves illuminating, nonetheless, to set typical features in contrast,
as a heuristic.

Free download pdf