Book review: Linguistics in the Internet age charts a path from BBSes to T9 and beyond.

Mara Katz

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<p><a data-height=Enlarge / Linguistics in the Internet age can be fun.

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The Internet has done good things to the English language.

That’s the most important thing linguist Gretchen McCulloch has to say in her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. Though many prominent opinion-havers rage about the imminent death of the English language at the hands of emoji-wielding teenagers, the Internet has done no more harm to English than television, radio, or dime novels.

In fact, McCulloch makes a compelling argument that Internet language, and emoji in particular, is restoring life to the relatively emotionless medium of text. For hundreds of years, public writing was limited to formal contexts like newspapers and books, written by educated people using very formal language for the edification of other educated people. Even fiction draws a clear line between informal dialogue and formal narration. On the Internet, on the other hand, the lines are much less clear. Private, informal writing (like shopping lists or notes passed between students at the back of a classroom) is now publicly visible, and the conventions developed by individuals or small groups for writing informally can spread and interact on a global scale. To McCulloch, this is more exciting than it is scary, and reading Because Internet might convince you to feel the same.

Writing like we talk

Gretchen McCulloch

McCulloch describes a variety of conventions Internet users have developed for informal writing, from emoji, which function like punctuation or gestures, to YELLING IN ALL CAPS, misspelling words in ways that reflect their own accents, or s t r e t c h i n g out words with internal spaces to make a point unmistakably clear. Each of these devices mirrors a spoken one, and their use allows Internet users to write in the same way that they talk, thereby expressing themselves more fully and more creatively.

This isn’t some conspiracy on the part of old people.

Even more fascinating, the amount each device is used changes over time in the same way they might in spoken language. It’s a common complaint among younger Internet users that parents are all too eager to end sentences in text messages with periods, sounding serious or even angry all the time as a result. This isn’t some conspiracy on the part of old people, McCulloch explains; people in different age groups tend to start using the Internet at different times and for different reasons, and those reasons show in how they text and tweet. For example, a person who first sent a text message using a flip phone with T9Word might retain some of the “txtspk” abbreviations that were necessary for saving effort and staying under the character limit in this tricky system. A younger person who’s only ever used a smartphone will feel comfortable typing words out in full and considering the emotional weight of every letter and piece of punctuation in a message, including the previously innocuous period.

McCulloch divides Internet users into several generations based on when and why they began using the Internet regularly, from “Old Internet People” who got their start on Usenet and BBSes to the “Post Internet People” who have never known a world without the World Wide Web and are currently spending their formative years on Instagram and Snapchat. In the same way that children and teenagers adopt spoken language conventions from their peer groups, Internet users pick up informal writing conventions from the people they interact with most frequently on their social networks of choice.

Her categories are spot-on: not only do I see myself in the “Full Internet People” who began joining Facebook and Tumblr in high school and college, but my friends and relatives of different Internet generations also see their experiences reflected in her categories.

Linguistics for everyone

In the introduction to Because Internet, McCulloch describes her goal as “writing for the future.” The book was created as not a stodgy treatise written in the English of the past for academics who might see it as some kind of relic. This is a book for anyone who uses English to get excited about, a book that takes advantage of the trends it describes. This doesn’t mean the book is full of emoji adding layers of emotional and social interpretation to each sentence, however; it’s still written in formal standard American English. It does, though, use some typographical conventions that haven’t yet made it into formal style guides, like not capitalizing “Internet.” Even if Facebook and Twitter someday collapse, taking all our wonderful correspondence with them, future linguists will be able to pick up this book and say, “Hey, they really did write like that!” Or even “this is when speech-like writing began to catch on,” as McCulloch suggested in a New York Times editorial.

McCulloch is on a mission to make linguistics relatable—and, hear me out, she’s on a roll in that respect. She does this not only through Because Internet, but also through Lingthusiasm, the podcast she co-hosts with fellow linguist Lauren Gawne. As its name suggests, Lingthusiasm shows off the hosts’ enthusiasm about linguistics and calls on its listeners to get excited about a wide variety of linguistic topics, such as how vowels work, the ways people from different cultures talk about time, and why efforts to create a single world language never catch on. On Lingthusiasm, McCulloch and Gawne dispel myths about language and inspire the kind of excitement that turns curious students into scientists. And in Because Internet, McCulloch continues to demystify and delight.

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