- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

LANGUAGE AND THE INTERNET
By David Crystal
Cambridge University Press, $19.95, 272 pages
REVIEWED BY DAVID SKINNER


David Crystal notes a delicious irony in his new book "Language and the Internet." The online radicals who proclaimed the death of boring old-fashioned writing conventions, it turns out, have had to establish their own orthodoxy of grammar and style. "Wired Style," a popular usage guide adapted from the house manual for Wired magazine, tells writers, amateur and professional, to "Celebrate subjectivity. Write with attitude. Play with voice."
Thus, principles that govern a small corner of writing, mostly fictional, are held up as a literary constitution for any writing on or about an entire medium. This is the logical equivalent of a tabloid copywriter insisting that anything written down should open with a punishingly vulgar lead and then a lighter, teasing subhead in the style of the New York Post.
Obviously different purposes require different means. Attitude and "voice" would not be appropriate to a report on the findings of a counter-terrorism commission. Another problem with the Wired school of writing is that its style recommendations are so specific that they quickly replace the individuality they were meant to liberate. So the young quirky voice of the technology hipster grows old, musty, and uniform in the span of a few years.
Fortunately the world of online writing is far broader than editorial tastes at Wired magazine. Besides, prescriptive style manuals are only the tip of the language iceberg David Crystal wants to explore, the whole of which he refers to as Netspeak. This popular term refers to the English language as it has been adapted to the Internet. The echo of newspeak from George Orwell's 1984 is unintended, and therefore subliterate, but otherwise Netspeak is preferable to the silly-sounding Weblish, the cliched cyberspeak, and other similarly contrived competitors.
Naming this thing at all, however, seems to rush us toward the conclusion that online usage constitutes a distinct, independent system when not even Mr. Crystal wants to argue that.
Mr. Crystal does argue that Netspeak is different from both the spoken and written word. Of the two, however, Netspeak is more like written English, but with some qualifiers. Netspeak is less formal, uses neologisms, and has developed many examples of shorthand for commonly used phrases. But there are hard limits on the difference of electronic English. In his book Mr. Crystal reproduces from the Wired Style manual a list of maxims for Netspeak. These four principles make it clear that on the Internet, a message is judged by the quality of information it contains, the relevance of such information, and the manner in which the message is relayed. Only this doesn't say much. The same four principles could be applied to trading after-dinner witticisms with Oscar Wilde over brandy.
And where principles fail David Crystal, examples come up short as well. To support his contention that the Internet represents a revolution in language, the author has to exaggerate the importance of various novelties peculiar to the Internet. The asynchronous character of e-mail the fact that a message can be delivered immediately while there's no telling when it will garner a response may be novel, but significant it isn't. The shorthand expressions and neologisms of chatrooms may also be without precedent, but they express thoughts and feelings experienced long before anyone anywhere had an AOL account. Mr. Crystal ends up spending a lot of time cataloging often-used online phrases like "LOL" (shorthand for laugh out loud) that do not mark an important change for the English language which has long grappled with expressing the pleasure associated with humor.
Still, Mr. Crystal makes some interesting discoveries, including although he speeds right past it the fact that Internet communication favors brevity. Witness the sudden, Internet-inspired popularity of bullet-point writing and the fact that, as Mr. Crystal points out, 80 percent of chatroom messages are shorter than five words. And not only are e-mails shorter than regular old letters, but their sentences contain fewer words than found in other prose. Even the words found in e-mails are comparatively short. So, while the English language continually expands with the addition of new words coined within intellectual disciplines, and undergoes short-lived but powerful manipulation from the forces of popular culture, electronic English seems to be undergoing a process of miniaturization.
Ironically, English language books show no similar trend. Serious English-language novels seem to be going long as of late. And judging from the length of mainstream nonfiction works, the publishing industry is in dire need of some brevity loving editors.
Hollywood too has been showing signs of inflation over recent years, allowing several major movies to run close to three hours. But at times it does seem as if America's public language has been captured by the one-two punchiness of advertising copy, which is exactly the kind of short-burst writing Wired magazine loves and the Internet seems to encourage. Take as an example of this style the slogan of American Express: "Do more."
More is what Mr. Crystal the linguist and editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia believes is so great about the Internet. It represents more unedited verbal communication than you can shake a stick at. And as an added bonus, this communication takes place on a completely new axis of space and time. But while the Internet may deliver more, it doesn't deliver better. If anything, the staccato style of Netspeak leaves one with an even deeper appreciation of English written in the long form. There are greater wonders to be found in the luxuriant sentences of Henry James than in the increasingly brief e-mails one receives that say only "Hi" or "Thanx."

David Skinner is assistant managing editor for The Weekly Standard.


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