Language and the Internet: A Linguist Looks at Discourse on the Internet (review)
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Language and the internet: A linguist looks at discourse on the internet. By David Crystal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. 272. $23.00.

How is the internet affecting language? What might be the end result? These are the questions David Crystal addresses, developing the view that the language of the internet (what he calls Netspeak) is a new medium blending properties of speaking, writing, and rapid electronic exchange. The book consists of eight chapters. Ch. 1, ‘A linguistic perspective’ (1–23), establishes some relevant linguistic preliminaries including the features of language C sees as relevant (graphic, orthographic, grammatical, discourse, phonetic, and phonological) and the web situations he examines in later chapters. Ch. 2, ‘The medium of Netspeak’ (24–61), considers whether the language of the internet is more akin to writing or speech. C notes that email, chatgroups, and virtual worlds rely heavily on core properties of speech combined with graphic richness. C also includes some discussion of Paul Grice’s maxims and of how they are undermined by such net practices as spoofing, trolling, lurking, spamming, and flaming.

Ch. 3, ‘Finding an identity’ (62–93), gives background on prescriptive vs. descriptive approaches and discusses internet style guides (such as Wired Style: Principles of English usage in the digital age, by Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon, New York: Broadway Books, 1999). C also discusses the salient features of Netspeak: its unique jargon and acronyms, emoticons (such as :-(for sadness), shorthand abbreviations such as imo (in my opinion) and btw (by the way), minimalist punctuation, and the suppression of capital letters. In Ch. 4, ‘The language of e-mail’ (94–128), C discusses such structural elements of email messages as headers, salutations, message length, typing errors, paragraph structure and length, the message within a message technique, and the practice of framing answers by cutting and pasting from other messages. C also provides further discussion of email style in relation to the prescriptive tradition and to business communication.

In Ch. 5, ‘The language of chatgroups’ (129–70), C considers the language of multiparticipant electronic forums—chatgroups, newsgroups, and lists. The discourse may be synchronous (as in chatrooms which rely on internet-relay-chat or instant messaging and which may develop their own rebus-like abbreviations and jargon) or asynchronous (as in lists or discussion groups). C speculates that the rambling nature of some electronic conversation may have a role in creating community. He also cites work on classroom conferencing and suggests that asynchronous groups in particular may emerge as a distinct discourse type. Ch. 6, ‘The languages of virtual worlds’ (171–94), describes the linguistic creativity found in multi-user dimensions (MUDs and MOOs) geared toward role-playing. These have an innovative terminology (wizard, emote, gag, etc.) and also evince a range of stylistic options (sharing a tendency toward economy). Ch. 7, ‘The language of the web’ (195–223), describes the linguistic features of web pages which include interrupted linear text, banners and popup pages, and hyperlinks. C also discusses the linguistic problems involved in search issues and the growth and management of the web, including its likely trend toward a more multilingual nature. Finally Ch. 8, ‘The linguistic future of the internet’ (224–42), deals with what comes next. Just as radio yielded to television, changes in bandwidth and wireless technology may see full screen text-based communication supplanted by short screen variants. C also suggests that specialized subject-related domains will incubate further language change.

C writes accessibly to a general audience, and he provides good descriptions of both linguistic concepts and the various internet communication types. His work here serves several roles. He dispels the folk view that Netspeak is randomly sloppy language, highlighting for the general reader its creativity and evolving nature. He documents the variety of Newspeak and its unique character. And he brings together his own observations with discussion of some of the linguistic research already done (by Lynn Cherny, Boyd Davis and Jeutonne Brewer, Susan Herring, and others) to focus our thinking about the future of language on the internet.

Edwin Battistella
Southern Oregon University