Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1


of speech is lacking, as can be seen in the regular injunctions in
usage guides to be careful, especially when engaging in humour or
Related to this is the way Netspeak lacks the facial expres-
sions, gestures, and conventions of body posture and distance (the
kinesicsandproxemics)^17 whicharesocriticalinexpressingpersonal
opinions and attitudes and in moderating social relationships. The
limitation was noted early in the development of Netspeak, and led
to the introduction ofsmileysoremoticons(a name deriving from
Emote, used in MUDs to convey actions: p. 180).^18 These are com-
binations of keyboard characters designed to show an emotional
facial expression: they are typed in sequence on a single line, and
placed after the final punctuation mark of a sentence. Almost all of
them are read sideways. The two basic types express positive atti-
tudes and negative attitudes respectively (the omission of the ‘nose’
element seems to be solely a function of typing speed or personal

:-) or : ) :-( or : (

Table 2.2 illustrates the most commonly used forms, along with a
few of the hundreds of ludic shapes and sequences which have been
invented and collected in smiley dictionaries. It is plain that they
are a potentially helpful but extremely crude way of capturing some
of the basic features of facial expression, but their semantic role is
limited. They can forestall a gross misperception of a speaker’s in-
tent, but an individual smiley still allows a huge number of readings
(happiness, joke, sympathy, good mood, delight, amusement, etc.)
which can only be disambiguated by referring to the verbal context.
Some commentators have even described them as ‘futile’.^19 With-
out care, moreover, they can lead to their own misunderstanding:

(^17) See Sebeok, Hayes, and Bateson (1964), Hall (1959).
(^18) See the collection in Sanderson (1993).
(^19) Dery (1997: 2), quoting an anonymous correspondent: ‘Shit happens, especially on the
Net, where everyone speaks with flattened affect. I think the attempt to signal authorial
intent with little smileys is interesting but futile. They’re subject to slippage like any other
kind of sign.’

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