Language and the Internet

(Axel Boer) #1


Because reactions to an interactive site are easy to make, they are
often made. The linguistic character of a site thus becomes increas-
ingly eclectic. People have more power to influence the language
of the Web than in any other medium, because they operate on
both sides of the communication divide, reception and produc-
tion. They not only read a text, they can add to it. The distinction
between creator and receiver thus becomes blurred. The nearest we
could get to this, in traditional writing, was to add our opinions
to the margin of a book or to underline or highlight passages. We
can do this now routinely with interactive pages, with our efforts
given an identical typography to that used in the original text. It is
a stylistician’s nightmare.
A nightmare, moreover, made worse by the time-sink effect.
A little while ago I was searching the Web for some data on the
Bermudas. I received many hits, but the first few dozen were all
advertisements for Bermuda shorts, which was not exactly what I
had in mind. This is a familiar search-engine problem (p. 197), but
what was noticeable about this particular result was the time-range
displayed by the hits. The ads were monthly accounts of the range
and prices dating back several years – April 1994, May 1994, and
so on. Quite evidently, many owners do not delete their old Web
pages; they leave them there. I do not know of any source which will
tell me just how much of the Web is an information rubbish-dump
of this kind. Unless data-management procedures alter to cope
with it, the proportion must increase. And in due course, there
will be an implication for anyone who wants to use the Web as a
synchronic corpus, in order to make statements about its stylistic
character. Let us jump forward fifty years. We call up an inter-
active site to which people have now been contributing for two
generations. The contributions will reflect the language changes
of the whole period, displaying words and idioms yet unknown,
and perhaps even changes in spelling, grammar, and discourse
patterns. Though some sites already date-stamp all contributions
(e.g. Amazon’s reader reactions), by no means all do so. In the
worst-case scenario, we could encounter a single text created by an

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